We hear a lot about sexy antioxidants, magical fats, and charismatic herbs, but fiber is the unglamorous superstar of the nutrient world that really needs our attention.
What is fiber?
Fiber is the non-digestible portion of plant foods. The Food and Drug Administration recognizes fiber as an important nutrient, as it may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and is important in helping you feel full and satisfied. Other research shows that it is associated with a decreased cancer risk, and it flushes excess estrogen and cholesterol from the body. Famously, it is important for normal gastrointestinal function, reducing the risk of constipation, appendicitis, and diverticulitis—large stool size plus regular elimination equals better colon health.
How much do we need?
The FDA recommends 14g per 1,000 calories per day, or 25g per day for women and 38g per day for men. Most of us consume far less fiber than we need, averaging only 15g. There are some nutritionists and naturopaths that are recommending up to 40 grams per day. Be sure to talk to your doctor about how much fiber is right for you.
Where the heck do you get it?
Plant foods. While very few single foods provide more than 8 or 9 grams per serving, being plants, you are probably trying to eat more of them anyway. Here’s another great excuse to indulge.
The richest sources of fiber are beans such as lentils, black beans, split peas, garbanzos, pinto, etc. Beans can provide between 6-9 g per half cup. You don’t have to sit down and eat a bowl full (although you can); you can add beans to whatever you’re eating—try puréeing some white beans with your pasta sauce to make a “cream” sauce, use hummus as a sandwich spread, toss your salad with black beans, or put a layer of mashed pinto beans on your burrito. Tempeh, a fermented soybean cake, is another fantastic source of fiber. Try steaming it and using it instead of chicken in “chicken salad” recipes. Don’t forget bean milks! I’m talking about soymilk, to be precise. Those can add another gram of fiber to whatever you’re using it in. Try replacing dairy milk with it in your favorite recipe. Beans are one of my favorite foods; there are very few things so versatile and satisfying. Truly a superfood.
High up on the list are whole grains—not refined grains such as all-purpose white flour, but the whole grain stuff. Look for the bread that has whole grain listed in the ingredients. And don’t forget about rice. Just make sure you are choosing brown rice instead of refined white. Oats are also a great source of fiber—either the quick or the old-fashioned will have the same nutrients. There are lots of other grains to try. Walk down our bulk aisles and try wheat berries, oat groats, barley, quinoa, millet, oh my! Treat whole grains like you would mashed potatoes, noodles, or rice—as a vehicle for a sauce or a protein.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are also a great source—ground flax seed provides two grams of fiber in one tablespoon, chia provides five grams in one tablespoon, and almonds give you three-and-a-half grams per ounce. Dried fruits are another great source, with prunes, figs and dates heading up the pack. All vegetables have fiber, so be sure to have a vegetable (or six) at every meal.
Feel like you are still not hitting the mark? Supplements to the rescue. You’ve probably heard of wheat bran—it’s the fiber containing part of the wheat berry. It’s used a lot in high-fiber cereals, but you can buy it by itself to add to your own breads and baked goods to boost the fiber content. In the supplement aisle, you can find psyllium, the primary ingredient in conventional products like Metamucil. You can buy it by itself, and mix it with juice or water and gulp it down for some extra fiber. Don’t want to gulp it? We do have psyllium in a capsule form, which provides a gram or two per serving. Another fiber supplement is PGX, which is available in both granules and soft gels.
Another option in our aisle is vegetable-based protein powders. Because they are made with fibrous vegetables, you can bet they will provide you with fiber.
Some folks experience some digestive discomfort when increasing their fiber intake—especially if you are not used to eating beans or whole grains. Besides asking your doctor to check for food sensitivities, one option is to take digestive enzymes. Look for full spectrum varieties that include the bean-destroying enzyme alpha-galactosidase.
For more information about the amazing benefits and the latest research of fiber, please check out nutritionfacts.org and search for fiber.