With most of the talk about carbs and fat — and with protein well-established as linchpin nutrient — there’s one nutrient that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle: FIBER.
Due to its versatility and array of health benefits, dietary fiber is what we like to refer to as a nutrition all-star. Despite its overall awesomeness, fiber is one of the most overlooked, disregarded nutrients—evidenced by the fact that the average person only consumes a paltry 17 grams per day, with only 5% of the population meeting the Adequate Intake (AI).
Simply getting enough fiber daily can have a dramatic impact on your waistline, overall health, and quality of life. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t appreciate a good BM and being regular?
Here are at least five darn-good reasons you need more fiber in your diet. Don’t worry, we’ll be sure to let you know exactly how much fiber per day you need and where you can find it.
Digestive Health. Dietary fiber is mission-critical for good digestive health, and to borrow a metaphor from Forest Gump, dietary fiber and digestive health go together like peas and carrots. Among its digestive health prowess, dietary fiber—particularly insoluble fibers—is well-known for aiding in laxation (there’s the BM talk I referred to) by increasing fecal bulk, increasing stool frequency, and reducing intestinal transit time.
Gut Health. While gut and digestive health go hand-in-hand, this is so important we think it deserves its own honorable mention. You see, certain fibers (such as oligosaccharides, β-glucans, gums, some hemicelluloses, and resistant starches) are fermented by the good bacteria in the large intestine. These fibers, often referred to as “prebiotics,” help support a healthy balance of gut bacteria. When they’re fermented, they also lead to production of short-chain fatty acids, which support the immune system, appetite management, healthy levels of inflammation, and more.
Heart Health. The connection between dietary fiber and heart health is so strong that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) bases its recommendation for how much fiber per day you should eat on it. Indeed, there’s no shortage of evidence that higher fiber intakes reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, and studies have shown that higher fiber intakes may:
- Lower total and LDL cholesterol
- Raise HDL cholesterol
- Lower blood triglycerides
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce markers of inflammation
Glycemic Control. There’s also a preponderance of evidence that shows a strong inverse relationship between dietary fiber consumption and type 2 diabetes. On one hand, fiber may help promote glycemic balance (i.e., blood sugar control) by slowing gastric emptying rates, digestion, and absorption of glucose. Also, certain types of fiber (e.g., prebiotics) may improve insulin sensitivity. Of course, fiber-rich foods may indirectly improve glycemic control and insulin sensitivity by improving weight loss outcomes.
Overall Health and Longevity. Dietary fiber may have a protective effect on all-cause mortality, which is just a fancy way of saying death from all causes. For example, in the Nurses’ Health Study, which had over 50,000 participants, researchers found an inverse association between fiber intake and all-cause mortality. What’s more, the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study, a large prospective cohort study, revealed that dietary fiber intake is inversely associated with total death rates, specifically cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory deaths in both men and women, as well as cancer deaths in men. Speaking of which, dietary fiber is known to protect against various forms of cancer, including colon, breast, and gastric cancers.
Weight Management. There is strong evidence from epidemiological (i.e., observational) studies that dietary fiber prevents obesity, and diets higher in fiber promote a healthy body weight and prevent weight gain. While there are multiple explanations for this, many attribute fiber’s beneficial effects on weight management to increased satiety, decreased hunger, and subsequently, reduced caloric intake, although studies looking at isolated fibers often don’t support these mechanisms. A nice bonus of eating more fiber-rich foods is that they tend to have low-energy-density, which means you can eat a lot more (volume) food for any given amount of calories.
How much fiber should you be eating? Generally speaking, a good target is 30 – 40 grams of fiber per day, and at a minimum, it’s a good idea to consume at least 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed.
What are the best sources of fiber? Speaking generally, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are the best dietary sources of fiber. Having said that, while dietary fiber has traditionally been categorized as soluble and insoluble, we now know that there are additional characteristics (e.g., viscosity, fermentability) that are important determinants of the effects that different fibers will have in the body. Along those lines, because different plant foods contain unique fibers, it’s a great idea to consume a variety of foods from the categories mentioned above to meet your daily fiber goal.