Fiber describes carbohydrates found in plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. Your body does not digest this type of carbohydrate. Fiber helps keep your digestive system running smoothly and helps prevent constipation. Fiber lowers your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and diseases of the colon that can result in diverticulitis. Increasing the amount of fiber in your diet is a smart move for your heart. Fiber-rich foods can help you lose weight or maintain weight loss because, compared with other foods, they tend to be low in calories, take longer to chew and make you feel full. Cereal fiber (found in grains like oats) seems to the most beneficial for heart disease prevention.
Most Americans consume only about 12 to 18 grams of fiber each day — about half the recommended 25 to 35 grams of fiber you should have every day. However, eating more than 35 grams may not be more helpful, because too much fiber can sweep important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc out of your intestines.
There are two types of fiber:
- Soluble fiber (including pectins and gums) is particularly helpful in lowering cholesterol levels and in fighting heart disease. Soluble fiber dissolves in fluids in the large intestine and forms a gel that binds with bile acids. When this occurs, bile acids are excreted through bowel movements instead of being absorbed into the bloodstream. As a result, the liver converts more cholesterol to bile acids and blood cholesterol levels are reduced. Good sources of soluble fiber are oats, dried beans and peas, lentils, apples and citrus fruits. Experts recommend having at least seven grams of soluble fiber each day for better heart health.
- Insoluble fiber (found in whole-grain foods, cereals, wheat bran and many fruits and vegetables) soaks up water like a sponge, adding bulk and helping to prevent constipation by making it easier for the intestine to move waste matter along your digestive tract — including material that might lead to cancer. While insoluble fiber is not cited in preventing heart disease, it keeps you regular and can help keep your digestive tract healthy.
Here's how to get more fiber into your heart-smart eating plan:
Eat More Beans
Beans are a great source of fiber, and can be an easy way to boost your fiber intake to recommended levels. By adding one-half cup of cooked kidney beans to salads or meals, you'll add about seven grams of fiber — including about three grams of heart-healthy soluble fiber. Eat one-half cup of cooked pinto beans and you'll get three grams of fiber, including two grams of soluble fiber.
Get into Grains
Oat bran may get the press, but other grains are just as beneficial. Barley, for instance, helps to lower cholesterol levels. In one study, subjects who added a mere three grams of milled brewer's yeast (which comes from barley) lowered their "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by an average of 6.5 percent after just one month. Just add barley, oat or rice bran to recipes, or sprinkle it over cereal.
Snack on Cereal
Cereal itself can be a good fiber source if you choose those made of whole grains. There are many sources of high-fiber hot and cold cereals, and most provide five grams or more in a half-cup serving.
Pig Out on Pectin
Pectin is a type of fiber found in many fruits and vegetables that works like other types of soluble fiber — it removes bile acids before they are absorbed into the bloodstream. Good sources of pectin include grapefruit, oranges, plums, peaches, spinach, lettuce, onions and peas. Most experts recommend eating at least five, preferably nine, servings of fruits and vegetables each day. But when eating fruits and vegetables, it's best to have them in food, rather than juice form. The juicing process removes much of the fiber.
Go for "Darker" Foods
When buying bread and baked goods, you're usually better off with the darker varieties. That means choosing brown rice over white rice, and brown "whole wheat" bread over white breads. That's because those "white" versions are typically refined, a process that removes much of the fiber. You'll know you're getting more fiber by reading food labels, and checking the ingredients list for whole grains.
Spread It Out
Because no meal is without fat, it's best to have fiber sources in every meal. A bowl of oatmeal is a great way to start your day, but don't stop there. It's wise to have fruit, vegetables, whole grains and other high-fiber foods with every meal.
Drink Like a Camel
As you increase the fiber in your diet, it's important to drink more liquids because fiber absorbs fluid as it passes through your body. To avoid constipation, drink eight to 10 glasses of water a day, and add fiber gradually — only a few additional grams each day. At the start, too much at once can cause gas, bloating or diarrhea and adding too much fiber to your diet too quickly can cause digestive discomfort.