The Fiber Guide

Fiber is probably one of the most misunderstood dietary components. Many people, even physicians, are confused about the different types of fiber, the benefits, and how much fiber should be consumed. This article should help you better understand the role of fiber and its importance to your health.

What is Fiber?

Fiber is a polysaccharide, sugar-like substance that comes in hundreds of forms. Dietary fiber is the indigestible portion of plant foods found mainly in its outer layers. Fiber passes through the human digestive tract virtually unchanged, without being broken down into nutrients. Most people know the importance of fiber, but few really understand how to best integrate fiber into a diet.

How much?

Over a hundred years ago, a change in the way wheat was processed substantially removed the dietary fiber in flour. Because of this, most of us only consume a small fraction of the amount of recommended daily fiber. In fact, the average American consumes only about 10% of the fiber that was part of a normal diet 100 years ago. The human body is well designed to accommodate many of the different types of fiber found naturally in foods. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine recommends 30-38 grams of fiber for men and 21-25 grams of fiber for women, each day.

Understanding fiber:

Dietary fibers are mostly soluble or insoluble. Fibers that dissolve in water (soluble) make a gel-like substance that may soften stools, hold cholesterol and fats, and lower blood sugar. Soluble fibers promote increased growth of essential bacteria in the colon thereby increasing bulk. Some examples are fruits, wheat, leafy vegetables, oats, beans and substances such as celluloses, pectin, psyllium and gums. Fibers that do not dissolve in water (insoluble), bind water in the colon. This sponge-like effect bulks stools and binds materials such as bile and potential carcinogens. Examples of insoluble fibers include whole grains, cereals, vegetables corn, rice, and bran. Both soluble and insoluble fibers may help patients with irritable bowel syndrome, diverticular disease, heart disease, and obesity. They may also potentially reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

How to take fiber:

High fiber foods are good for your health, but adding too much too quickly can promote intestinal gas, bloating and cramps. Increase fiber in your diet gradually over a few weeks including plenty of fluids (6-8 glasses a day). This will allow your digestive system the appropriate time to adjust. The best sources of fiber are those found in foods. Eating a diet rich in fiber will incorporate varieties of fiber, both soluble and insoluble, that’s healthier than fiber supplements as they contain essential vitamins and minerals not found in supplements. However, some people may need supplements for certain medical problems if dietary changes do not supply enough daily fiber.

Food choices:

Many everyday low-fiber foods do have high-fiber alternatives, so make smart food choices. Also, it’s important to know that freezing, drying, and normal cooking do not significantly alter the fiber content of most foods.