Fiber plays role in weight loss, overall health

Adding more fiber to your diet may not be on the top of your “to do” list, but it can certainly help you feel healthier, according to dietitians.

“Fiber is important to the overall diet,” says Cheryl Burns, a registered dietitian at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Ill. “Most people get less than half the fiber that they need. We recommend 25 to 35 grams a day; however, the average person gets about 15 grams a day. We tend to eat more refined grain, which has less fiber. By refined grain, I mean white bread, rolls or regular pasta.”

Sara Lopinski, a registered dietitian for the Center for Living at the Prairie Heart Institute in Springfield, agrees.

“I teach an ‘Eat Well, Be Well’ nutrition improvement program where I also really push the consumption of fruit, vegetables and grains. You get the most fiber out of fresh fruit versus eating canned fruit,” she says.

With four grams of fiber, a fresh pear is probably one of its best sources, Burns says. A fresh apple has three grams, while half of a grapefruit has one gram. Raw vegetables and whole-grain breads with three grams of fiber per serving are also good choices.

“You have to read labels on packaged goods. Whole grain does not mean something is high in fiber,” Lopinski says.

Half the grains you eat should be whole grain, such as brown rice, and the other half should be high-fiber foods, such as bran cereal, she says.

There are two types of fibers. Insoluble fiber goes through the digestive tract largely undissolved and is also known as roughage. It helps the colon function properly. Its food sources include whole-grain foods, fruits with skins, vegetables and legumes (dry beans and peas).

Soluble fiber dissolves into a gel-like substance in the intestines and aids in blocking cholesterol and fats from being absorbed into the blood stream. It helps to lower LDL, or bad cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. Finally, it slows down how fast glucose is absorbed in the body. It is found in oats, oat bran, fruits and vegetables.

Some research has suggested that eating the right amount of fiber can aid in weight loss. “High fiber foods are often low in calories and fat,” Lopinski says. “High fiber foods take longer to chew so they may help you slow down so you eat less. Due to the actual bulk of these foods, they help you feel full longer, making you less inclined to raid the refrigerator or pantry shortly after eating.”

While many people might include extra vitamins in their diets, Burns believes in simply eating better. “We get so much more nutrition from fruits, vegetables and grains that we can’t get in a pill.”

Of course, consuming fiber has also long been known as a way to combat bowel irregularity.

People who decide to increase fiber in their diet should do so gradually, Bums cautions.

“If you add more fiber, it should affect your bowel in a few days. However, don’t increase fiber rapidly,” she says. “Try to add one or two (sources) a day until you build up to the recommended amount. Increasing your intake too suddenly can cause abdominal cramps or bloating.”