Eating enough fiber is difficult. Eating enough fiber is easy. You’ve undoubtedly encountered both of those contradictory statements. And, strangely, they are both somewhat true. The recommended intake of fiber for adults is 25 to 38 grams a day, and that is a substantial amount. Reaching that amount is difficult, because so many of the foods we take for granted have very little or none.
Get up in the morning and eat a breakfast of bacon and eggs, white toast, juice and coffee, and you’re heading into the day with almost no fiber. Add a ham sandwich for lunch and a strip steak with French fries for dinner, and you’re still sitting on close to zero.
If that’s the kind of diet you follow, then, yes, it is extremely difficult to get enough fiber. And, in fact, the typical American gets less than half the recommended amount of daily fiber.
If, on the other hand, you take seriously the recommendation to eat five servings every day of fruits and vegetables and three servings of whole grain bread or cereals, you’re probably close to your recommended fiber intake with no extra effort. If you cook your own meals from scratch, avoid packaged foods and snack on nuts and seeds, you will agree that getting enough fiber is easy.
Dietary fiber is found only in plant foods; it is the indigestible part that helps push food through the digestive system. When it was referred to as roughage, the idea was that fiber was valuable primarily to keep your bowels “regular.” The stereotypical foods were All Bran, raisin bread and prunes — not very exciting fare.
It’s now commonly known that fiber has other important roles, as well. Insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water and passes through the intestines largely intact, has important benefits for the bowels and digestive system (including a lower risk of cancer). This kind of fiber is found in green beans, dark leafy vegetables, whole-wheat bread and cereal, fruit peels, potato skins, seeds and nuts.
Eat soluble fiber — the kind that can dissolve in water — and you can count on lower cholesterol, improved blood sugar control and even some help in maintaining a normal weight. Good sources of soluble fiber include oats, barley, apples, beans, bananas and berries.
Fiber carries very few calories and it causes food to move more slowly through the system. Whole grain bread, as opposed to bread made with refined flour, keeps you feeling full longer. And studies have demonstrated that a high-fiber diet helps control weight. This is in addition to its role in lowering cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar and lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
The body has no way of storing fiber, as it does fat. So you should aim to get your 25 to 38 grams every day. In general, that means eating less meat, refined grains and packaged foods; more fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grain foods.
More specifically, here are some tips for adding more fiber to your daily diet:
START YOUR DAY with a bowl of whole-grain cereal. Oats, whether rolled or steel cut, are always 100 percent whole grain, and a half cup provides 4.0 grams of soluble fiber. Top your oatmeal with some blueberries, raspberries, raisins, dates and/or nuts, and you have added another 4 to 4.5 grams.
CHOOSE WHOLE-GRAIN bread whenever possible for your sandwich or toast. Whole-grain flour does not rise as well, so even many fine bakers mix in some refined flour. But check the label and try to find a bread that has a high content of whole grains.
FOR SNACKS, choose fruit, raw vegetables or nuts — all are high in vitamins and minerals as well as fiber. You get 2-3 grams of fiber for a medium-sized fruit or a half cup. A whole orange (2.4 grams of fiber) is much better than orange juice (0.4 grams). And avoid peeling your apple or peach; you’re losing a good part of the fiber and nutrition. Only 10 almonds are needed to rack up 4.0 grams of fiber.
MAKE BEANS A PART of your regular diet by using them in soups and salads or as a side dish. Black beans, white beans, red beans, pinto beans — each has its own nutrition and flavor profile. Only a half cup of kidney beans provides 9.0 grams of fiber.
READ THE LABELS. Food manufacturers want to be on the good health band wagon. But the only way to know for sure how much fiber is in your food is to read the label. Aim for 3-5 grams per serving.
Finally, slow down and enjoy your fiber-rich diet. Contrary to their public image, fiber-filled foods are rich in texture and flavor. Once they become a regular part of your diet, you’ll be reluctant to give them up.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.