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Harvard Commentaries
35320
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Fabulous Fiber


October 23, 2014


By Julie Redfern, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Fiber is the part of plant foods that the body cannot digest. It moves through the digestive system, absorbing water. This helps eliminate food waste from the body more quickly. Since fiber is not absorbed, it is not a nutrient. Rather, we refer to fiber as a "component" of food.

Fiber is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, dry beans and peas, nuts, seeds, bread, and cereals. (It is not found in animal products — meat, milk, eggs.) Fiber can also be added to foods during processing.

Fiber's Health Benefits

Fiber comes in two varieties: soluble, which dissolves in water, and insoluble, which does not. Although fiber does not nourish our bodies, it has other ways of promoting good health as the chart below illustrates.

 
Soluble Fiber
Insoluble Fiber
(Roughage)
Name
Pectins, gums, mucilages
Cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin
What it does
Disolves in water,
forming a gel in intestines
Holds on to water, moving waste
through intestines
How it promotes good health
Binds to fatty substances in the intestines and helps carry them out as waste, lowering LDL or bad cholesterol

Regulates the body's use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check.

Helps push food through the intestines quickly, promoting regularity and helping prevent constipation.
Where it's found
Dried beans and peas, lentils, oats, barley, apples, bananas, citrus fruits, berries, pears, carrots
Whole-wheat products, wheat and corn bran, brown rice, oats, cauliflower, green beans, potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, succhini, cucumbers, tomatoes, fruit skins (apple, peach, pear)

Let's Talk Numbers

How much fiber do you need each day? The current recommendation for adults is 20 to 35 grams. Children over age 2 should consume an amount equal to their age plus 5 grams a day, (So a four year old, for example, should get 9 grams a day). The average American falls short of the ideal and eats only 10 to 15 grams of dietary fiber a day.

To get more fiber add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet with these easy tips:
  • Add some berries on your breakfast cereal or try an apple with peanut butter for a snack.
  • Have vegetables at each meal; sauté with a little olive oil, steam, grill or just enjoy them raw.
  • For an afternoon snack dip baby carrots and celery sticks in hummus.
  • Cook with beans; add them to your soups, pasta dishes, or try them on a salad.
  • Choose whole grain breads (100% whole-wheat) and whole-wheat pasta, or brown rice.

Start slowly when you up your fiber intake. This will help relieve the bloating, cramping, and gas that some people experience when eating more fiber. Be sure to drink more water as well to help the fiber pass through the intestines more easily. Getting fiber naturally from foods assures you all of the other phytonutrients as well. Fiber-only supplements, however, are available for a fiber boost.

Label Reading 101

You can figure out how much fiber a food contains by reading the package label. Keep in mind that the amount of fiber listed is based on the serving size, not the entire package. Foods that are an excellent source of fiber contain 5 grams or more per serving. See the chart below for examples of the fiber content of various foods.

FOOD
Serving Size
Grams of Fiber
Grains
Bran cereal
1/3 cup
8.3
Quinoa
1/2 cup
5
Bran flakes
3/4 cup
5
Bulgur (cooked)
1/2 cup
4.1
Oatmeal (cooked)
1 cup
4
Brown rice
1/2 cup
3.5
Cream of wheat, instant
1 cup
2.9
Whole wheat bread
1 slice
2
Fruits
Raspberries
1 cup
8.4
Prunes, stewed
1/2 cup
8
Blackberries
1 cup
7.6
Apricots, dried
1/2 cup
4.8
Pears
1 medium
4
Blueberries
1 cup
3.9
Apple
1 medium
3.7
Strawberries
1 cup
3.3
Banana
1 medium
2.8
Vegetables
Artichoke
1 medium
6.5
Winter squash (cooked)
1 cup
5.7
Collard greens (boiled)
1 cup
5.3
Snow peas (edible pod peas)
1 cup
4.5
Spinach (cooked)
1 cup
4.3
Broccoli (raw; cooked)
1 cup; 1/2 cup
2.6
Beans
Kidney beans, red, canned
1/2 cup
8.2
Baked beans
1/2 cup
7
Navy beans, canned)
1/2 cup
6.7
Refried beans (edible pod peas)
1/2 cup
6
Chickpeas, canned
1/2 cup
5.3

Juice vs. the Whole Fruit

Juice is the concentrated form of fruit. Even though no sugar is added to the juice, it has more sugar than the whole fruit. Juice also lacks the fiber that naturally occurs in fruit. In general, the closer foods are to their natural, unprocessed state, the better. The chart below provides some examples:

Food
Serving Size
Grams of Fiber
Apple with peel
One medium
4
Apple without peel
One medium
2.1
Applesauce
1/2 cup
1.5
Apple juice
1 cup
0.25

Julie Redfern , R.D.,L.D.N. is a registered dietitian and manager of the Nutrition Consultation Services at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She specializes in nutrition counseling for the obstetrics and gynecology department. She is a graduate of the University of Vermont and completed her dietetic internship at the Universit of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Lauren Solomon is currently a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated from the University of Vermont.

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