Fiber – Another Look

Article by Dr. Paul Kennedy
Read more by this author.

It has been a while since an article about dietary fiber has graced these pages. It does seem that Americans are now getting the message about fiber based on information from the International Food Information Council Foundation that indicates that consumer awareness of the value of fiber has grown while focus on carbohydrates, while still important, has leveled off. What this information DOESN”T mean is that Americans are getting the fiber that they need. The USDA has estimated that only 20% of the population (about one in five Americans) gets the dietary fiber that they need. How much is enough? Well, for men and women fifty and under the amount is 38 and 25 grams respectively and for older Americans (those over fifty) it is, respectively, 30 and 21 grams. Dietary fiber, of course, allows the body to remain “regular” and stimulates the function of the bowels.
As a result, they help reduce the incidence many digestive disorders from irritable bowel syndrome to diverticulitis (small inflamed “pouches” that can develop in the colon) to hemorrhoids.

But there are other advantages to increasing the amount of dietary fiber by eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (be advised that French Fries are NOT considered a FRESH vegetable). Many of these health advantages are indirect effects of the inclusion of healthier foods in the diet itself. For example, by eating foods rich in fiber, the risk or severity of diabetes is reduced (due to the slowing of the absorption of sugars in the digestive tract) as well as replacing many “high sugar” foods in the diet itself (like eating an apple instead of a cupcake). The absorption and greater elimination of cholesterol is also a function of increased fiber intake. Since the liver uses blood cholesterol to make bile (used in digestion), a greater amount of the cholesterol is carried away by the fiber that passes through the digestive tract. This means that LESS cholesterol finds its way back into the bloodstream during the digestive process. Therefore, with more fiber consumed, the body takes in LESS cholesterol and MORE cholesterol is eliminated from the body as a result of digestion. Sort of like winning TWICE!

It has also been shown (based on more than two dozen clinical trials) that individuals that eat more fiber may actually be helping to reduce
their blood pressure’sometimes in as little as eight weeks! Similar positive effects have been found in the relationship between increased fiber intake and age at mortality (in other words, how long you live!). Additionally, increasing the fiber content of one’s diet is a great way to LOSE fat weight slowly but surely over time. Why? Because high fiber foods are not only more nutrient dense (more nutrients per calorie), they also tend to produce a

greater feeling of fullness and, possibly, prevent overeating! And, of course, less eating means fewer calories consumed which means less unwanted weight (fat?)gain. And with the higher nutrient density of high fiber foods, those extra calories will never be missed.

If you decide that more fiber is a good idea for you (and most Americans consume about HALF of what is recommended), just remember that it is a good idea to gradually increase the fiber content of one’s diet slowly—perhaps one additional serving a day for a few weeks. Too much fiber taken in too quickly or too soon may result in cramping and some intestinal distress. In addition, it can also cause a bit of “post-prandial” sound effects that may be a bit embarrassing. In other words, the “after dinner” toots! But increasing the amount of dietary fiber is one of the best things one can do for improved health and, as we have seen, that doesn’t just mean digestive health.

So throw in more fruits and vegetables into your eating plan even if it’s just for snacking. Add beans and grains, prepared as simply as possible, to your menu. Steam some fresh vegetables with dinner or add them to soups and stews as a main course. Eat a salad with most evening meals or with diced ham or chicken as a main course or nutritious lunch. Try oatmeal at breakfast instead of highly processed, sugary breakfast cereals from a box with cartoons on it. It’s not difficult to make the right eating decisions with just a little planning—and it’s generally a little cheaper on the food budget! And who can’t use a few extra bucks?

I’m Dr. Paul Kennedy and that’s the “Be Fit, Stay Fit” Topic of the Month. Good luck with YOUR program. I KNOW you can do it!

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