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Getting the Nutrition You Need with Fiber

Health Benefits Of A Fiber-Rich Diet

It protects against cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It promotes healthy bowels and can even help you lose weight. Is it a miracle drug? No, just ordinary fiber. Drowning amid messages of fats, carbs, calories and antioxidants, fiber hasn't been getting the attention it deserves lately. But don't let the media neglect of fiber cause you to neglect it at home. The average fiber intake in the United States is only 14 grams per day. That's far less than the recommended amounts of 19 grams for young children and 38 grams for young to middle-aged men.

The most commonly known benefit of fiber is its role in preventing and treating constipation. But it's so much more than that, says Joanne Slavin, professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. An abundance of research suggests that diets with ample fiber protect against colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Such diets tend to lower cholesterol and improve the blood sugars of people with diabetes. The problem, Slavin points out, is that the protective effect is seen with fiber intakes much greater than the usual amounts consumed in this country. She recommends more than 30 grams of fiber daily for most people.

In part, fiber intake is poor because of convenience foods and restaurant meals. Many people don't eat home-prepared meals any more. "They eat a lot of processed foods and not enough fruits and vegetables," says Mary Donkersloot, registered dietitian and director of Personal Nutrition Management in Beverly Hills, Calif. In the age of "grab what you can and off you go," getting your daily supply of fiber and other nutrients is especially difficult. In between soccer and art, your kids clamor for a quick stop at the first fast food restaurant they see. You've not had much time to think about dinner, so why not? The trouble is that getting adequate nutrition requires effort and meal planning.

A diet rich in fiber is also lush in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (disease-fighters in plants) and tends to be lower in calories and fat. These combined dietary characteristics are associated with lower body weight and better health. "We don't know if it's the fiber itself, but we do know that foods high in fiber are protective against disease," says Melanie Polk, registered dietitian and director of Nutrition Education for the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. "It could be the phytochemicals, the fiber, the combination of various phytochemicals or the combination of fiber and phytochemicals." She encourages fiber-rich foods at every meal.

Donkersloot concurs that fiber-rich foods belong on every plate and in every lunchbox. "No one food has enough fiber, so it's important to have an unprocessed grain at each meal," she says. "Maybe oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich on whole-grain bread for lunch and corn for dinner." She also recommends a fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack. Get your kids used to good-for-you foods early. Remember that young children may need to see, touch, smell and taste a new food several times before fully accepting it.

Fiber for Weight Loss

Look to these same foods to halt creeping weight and ballooning waists. The fiber and water content of fruits, vegetables and cooked grains aids weight loss, says Dr. Barbara Rolls, professor of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State University and author of The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan (Perennial, 2000). Increasing fiber-rich and water-rich fruits and vegetables will fill you up more, so you'll eat fewer calories overall.

Dieters don't have to be hungry to lose weight. In fact, she says, most people are surprised by the quantity of food they're allowed when they start substituting healthful, high-fiber foods for their usual food choices. Consider an afternoon snack. Both two cups of cantaloupe and 20 small pretzel twists (about 1/2 cup) weigh in at about 120 calories. In a bowl, the cantaloupe looks like more. It likely takes longer to eat, and it certainly has more nutrition – more vitamins A and C and the minerals potassium and magnesium. The cantaloupe serves up three grams of fiber, but the pretzels only 1.

The message shouldn't be to eat less, Dr. Rolls says. Rather, by substituting produce and cooked grains for calorie-dense foods like cheese, pretzels and tortilla chips, the dieter gets more volume of food for fewer calories and loses weight with less hunger.

Rev up your weight loss plan by starting your meal with a low-calorie, fiber-rich salad or cup of soup. When 42 healthy women ate a low-fat, low-calorie salad before their main course of pasta, they ate less pasta and fewer calories overall than when they weren't served the healthful greens. Eating a three-cup salad decreased the meal intake by 107 calories. A smaller salad (1 1/2 cups) reduced overall caloric intake by 64 calories.

But be careful. Eating a large salad heavy on cheese and full-fat dressing caused the women to eat an average of 145 extra calories, so stick with low-fat ingredients. In theory, cutting just 100 calories daily could result in a 10-pound weight loss over a year. But the opposite is true too. Eat an extra 100 calories daily, and next year you'll be lugging around another 10 pounds.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Though unlikely, it is possible to consume too much fiber. Very large doses may block nutrient absorption. Additionally, since fiber remains unabsorbed, it's fermented by normal, healthy bacteria in the large intestine. The fermentation process produces gas and may cause bloating and embarrassing flatulence.

To avoid discomfort, gradually add fiber to your diet, giving your body time to adapt. Increase your fluid intake, too, since fiber needs water to remain soft and sweep the colon. Without enough water, fiber-rich diets actually increase constipation.

When prescribed by a physician, fiber supplements like Metamucil and Citrucel may be important in treating certain diseases like diverticulosis. But Polk cautions that they can never substitute for a fiber-rich diet. She points out that it's not the fiber alone that helps prevent chronic disease, but the consumption of fiber-rich foods that scientists recognize as health aids.

Top Ways to Increase Fiber

Get more fiber starting today. Use the tips below to gradually increase your family's intake of fiber-rich foods.

At breakfast:

  • Pick a whole grain cereal for breakfast. Try to find one with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. For taste, mix it with your usual cereal.
  • Slice fruit into your dry cereal.
  • Mix raisins or dried cranberries into oatmeal.
  • In restaurants:

  • Start your meal with a large low-fat, low-calorie salad or a cup of vegetable soup.
  • In Japanese restaurants, choose edamame beans (young soybeans) from the appetizer menu. Order red or black beans in Mexican restaurants.
  • Experiment with new vegetarian dishes or restaurants.
  • Ask for extra vegetables on your sandwich. Swap the pasta or rice for extra veggies.
  • In the kitchen:

  • Make a veggie dip by pureeing canned beans with lemon juice, olive oil and spices. Serve it with whole grain crackers like Triscuits and with raw veggies.
  • When baking, add some wheat germ, oatmeal, bran or flax to the batter.
  • Concoct a snack mix of dried fruit, nuts and whole grain cereals.
  • Add berries to ice cream and yogurt.
  • Have canned beans whenever you can. Add them to soups and salads. Cook up some beans and rice for supper. Wrap them into burritos and tacos.
  • Snack on granola bars (Fiber One, Kashi) and crackers (Triscuits) that have at least two grams of fiber for every 100 calories. Evaluate cereals, pasta and other grains the same way.
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