Chances are, you’re not getting enough fiber in your diet. The National Cancer Institute and other leading health organizations recommend consuming 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily depending on gender and age. Most Americans, particularly those who prefer a typical Western diet, average about 15 grams, according to the American Dietetic Association.
But despite the news flash, the thought of gnawing on food you suspect tastes like tree bark has zero appeal for you, or you believe you don't have enough time to prepare a high-fiber diet. Why not just pop a few fiber tablets or capsules or sprinkle powder in a drink and be done with it, right? The problem, as you'll see, is fiber supplements only provide a partial solution.
There are two types of fiber our bodies need that benefit us in different ways – soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. When mixed with liquid, soluble fiber forms a gel, aiding the absorption of nutrients into our systems and helping to lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the "bad" one). Soluble fiber also slows the absorption of sugar helping improve blood sugar levels.
Insoluble fiber keeps our digestive systems running efficiently. Because it is eliminated and not stored in the body – passing through our intestines largely intact – it helps increase stool bulk and helps prevent constipation. Studies also show insoluble fiber may help prevent colon cancer by keeping an optimal pH in the intestines to prevent microbes from producing cancerous substances. Because digestive enzymes are unable to break them down, both soluble and insoluble fiber are undigested and are not absorbed into the bloodstream.
Need another reason to up your fiber intake? Studies show both forms of fiber help lower C-reactive protein (CRP), an indicator of inflammation found in the blood, which at high levels could indicate anything from an infection to rheumatoid arthritis to heart disease. While it’s not possible to say that eating high-fiber foods would help arthritis specifically, reducing CRP is a good reason to get more fiber.
Fiber also can aid weight loss. Research at Tufts University in Boston shows people who eat a high-fiber diet consume less total calories and lose more weight than those who eat a low-fiber diet. One reason is high-fiber diets contain fewer calories per volume of food. Meals high in fiber also provide a feeling of fullness for much longer periods than meals with a low-fiber content because it slows digestion, thus delaying hunger. A pill or powder can't do that!
Fiber supplements typically contain only one type of fiber, usually insoluble. Plus, while some are fortified with additional nutrients, they don't offer the broad array of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients our bodies need and and that are found in whole foods in the proportion designed by nature.
Best whole-food sources of soluble fiber: Oat bran, kidney beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, oranges, broccoli, pears, apples, barley and peas.
Best sources of insoluble fiber: Wheat bran, legumes, fruit skin, seeds, nuts, sunflower seeds, soybean nuts and almonds.
Note: Oats, barley, beans, fruit, psyllium and some vegetables contain significant amounts of both forms of fiber.
Bonus Tip: While it's best to eat a variety of foods and not rely on a fiber supplement to increase fiber in your diet, you’ll want to up your fiber consumption gradually, since rapid fiber increase may result in gas, cramping, bloating, or diarrhea. Also, remember to drink plenty of fluids to help soften your stools.