Why is Dietary Fiber Essential for a Healthy Diet?

Eat more fiber; you have probably heard it many times before. But do you know why fiber is so good for your health? Dietary fiber is probably best known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation. But foods rich in fiber can provide other health benefits as well.

What is dietary fiber?

Dietary fiber, also known as roughage or bulk, is the indigestible portion of plant foods, that travel through our digestive system, absorbing water along the way and easing bowel movements. It is mainly found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.

Fiber is usually classified as soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Both types are present in all plant foods, in different proportions. Each type helps the body in different ways; therefore, it is important to include both in your diet.

  • Soluble Fiber: Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like material. It helps lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, peas, beans, lentils, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium husk.
  • Insoluble Fiber: Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and does not change form. It helps the movement of material through the digestive system and increases stool bulk, so it can be of benefit to those who suffer from constipation or irregular stools. Whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts and seeds, vegetables, such as cauliflower, and potatoes with skin, are good sources of insoluble fiber.

Best dietary fiber sources

Below is a selection of foods that contain high amounts of fiber:

Cereal grains:

  • Barely
  • Oatmeal
  • Oat Bran
  • Rye

Seeds:

  • Psyllium
  • Flax seeds

Fruits:

  • Apple
  • Banana
  • Blackberries
  • Citrus Fruits (orange, grapefruit)
  • Nectarine
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Plum
  • Prunes

Vegetables:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes

Legumes:

  • Black beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Lima beans
  • Navy beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Lentils (yellow, green, orange)
  • Chick peas
  • Black-eyed peas

Fiber supplements

People who are allergic to some high-fiber foods can find it difficult to consume the correct amount of fiber. However, with such a broad variety of fiber-containing foods around, it should be possible to find some that do not cause a reaction. Moreover, chemist’s sell fiber supplements, which can be beneficial for some people; though these products do not provide the same levels of vitamins and nutrients as natural fiber-containing foods.

Adequate dietary fiber consumption has numerous health benefits:

Promotes a healthier bowel function

Dietary fiber increases the weight and size of stools and softens it. The bulky stool passes through the intestinal tract quickly and easily, and thus reduces the need for strained bowel movements. This helps to maintain bowel health and to avoid constipation, and as a result may also lower the risk of hemorrhoids.

Helps control blood sugar levels

Soluble fiber slows down the release of sugars from digested food into the bloodstream; therefore, it prevents a rapid rise or spike in blood sugar levels, especially after meals. This can help people with type 2 diabetes improve their blood sugar levels. A healthy diet that includes insoluble fiber may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Lowers cholesterol levels

Soluble fiber may help lower total blood cholesterol levels, primarily by lowering the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol. Inside your digestive system, soluble fiber attaches to cholesterol particles and takes them out of the body, helping to reduce overall cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. Moreover, high-fiber foods may have other heart health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation.

Aids in weight management

High-fiber foods take longer to chew and are more filling than low-fiber foods, so you’re likely to eat less and stay satisfied longer. They thus prevent overeating. Moreover, high-fiber foods are less “energy dense,” which means they have fewer calories for the same volume of food. This also helps in controlling weight.

Recommended intake

The recommended daily intake of fiber for women is 25 grams and, for men, it is 38 grams. After the age of 50, the suggested intake for women is 21 grams and men is 30 grams.

High-fiber foods are good for your health. But increasing too much fiber too quickly, in your diet, can cause intestinal gas, abdominal bloating, and cramping. Increase fiber slowly over a period of a few weeks. That allows the natural bacteria in your digestive system to adapt to the change. It is recommended to drink plenty of water. Fiber works best when it absorbs water, making your stool soft and bulky.