The U.S. often isn’t the first nation to come to mind when you think of countries with healthy eating habits to adopt, but it turns out we may be influencing how our friends across the Atlantic dine.
The “all things fiber” trend taking over American supermarkets is also on the rise in Spain, Germany, Poland, and the U.K., where 62 percent of people say consuming enough fiber is important, a new European report found. Fiber even trumps calories, as only 56 percent said reducing calories was important.
This study intrigued me because while there are a number of foods with fiber added on the market—everything from pasta to yogurt—the latest nutrition data indicates that the average intake in the United States is less than half the recommended 14 grams per 1,000 calories (which works out to roughly 25 grams a day for women and 38 for men). And when I talk to my clients, most don’t know much about this nutrient, other than it’s generally good for you.
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In a nutshell, fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body can’t digest or absorb, and there are two primary types: soluble and insoluble. Soluble is the soft, sticky type found in oats, barley, beans, and the “meat” of fruits, which helps to lower cholesterol and soften waste so it can pass through your system more easily. Insoluble is the tough type, found in whole wheat and the skin, stalks, and seeds of fruits and veggies, that helps to push waste through the GI tract and improve bowel regularity.
Fiber also has a number of weight-control benefits, which I’ve often touted on this blog. First, it fills you up, but because you don’t break it down and absorb it into your bloodstream, you don’t have to worry about burning off fiber in order to prevent it from getting socked away in your fat cells.
There is also some research showing that for every gram of fiber you eat, you eliminate about seven calories. That means if you gobbled 30 grams a day, it would essentially “cancel out” 210 of the calories you ate, which could result in shedding up to 20 pounds in a year’s time.
Lastly, fiber has been found to slow the digestion and absorption of other carbs, which results in a slower, steadier rise in blood sugar and a delay in the return of hunger.
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But fiber’s powers don’t stop at weight loss. It may also reduce the risk of death from any cause, according to a recent paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Women who ate about 25 grams of fiber a day were 22 percent less likely to die during the nine-year study than those who ate only 10 grams daily. And the risk of death from heart disease, infections, and respiratory diseases was reduced by as much as 50 percent in the high-fiber eaters, with the greatest benefit seen from consuming grains. Pretty powerful stuff!
To boost your intake and hit the daily target, I recommend bulking up on naturally fiber-rich foods, primarily fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Just a cup of raspberries, a cup of black bean soup, a medium orange, and an ounce of almonds packs more than 25 grams, so meeting the recommendation doesn’t require a drastic change in your diet.
Some good general rules of thumb for upping your intake include:
- Choose more fruits with edible seeds, skins, and membranes, including apples, raspberries, and oranges.
- Reach for veggies with tough stalks and edible skin, such as artichokes and broccoli.
- Opt for whole rather than refined grains. Oats, barley, quinoa, brown and wild rice, and 100% whole-wheat versions of bread, pasta, and crackers are good options.
- Replace meat with beans or lentils at least five times a week.
- Snack on nuts and seeds, or use them to garnish salads, stir-fries, cereal, and yogurt.
Oh, and one more thing: As you increase your fiber intake, be sure to drink plenty of extra water. It's key to help the fiber move through your system. Too little H2O and too much fiber can be a recipe for bloating and constipation, or a pretty uncomfortable tummy ache!
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.