The Benefits of Fiber

June 13, 2013 5:46 am Last Updated: June 14, 2013 9:43 pm

Ever eaten what you thought was a pretty hefty and filling lunch only to feel the need to snack shortly after? These snacks do add up over time, contributing to a few extra pounds. If this sounds familiar, perhaps the lack of fiber-rich foods is to blame. 

It is well-known that fiber is good for your health. From magazine headlines to the doctor’s office, the advice is the same: “Want to lose weight? Start eating fiber foods” and “Load up on fiber to lower your risk of heart disease.”

But how does fiber actually help you lose weight or keep heart attacks at bay? And how can you easily eat more fiber without overhauling your diet? 

Weight Loss

Dietary fiber consists of plant material that cannot be digested and absorbed by the body. This means that the fiber portion of foods merely passes through your digestive tract without contributing calories. 

Foods that contain fiber—such as fruits and vegetables—take up more space in the stomach than foods that don’t, helping you feel full and satisfied. 

In addition, these fiber-rich foods move slowly from your stomach to your small intestine, which also helps you feel satisfied for longer periods of time. Feeling full makes it easier to decrease your caloric intake and lose weight.

Different Types of Fiber, Different Benefits

Soluble fiber is water-soluble, which means it dissolves in water. Soluble fiber dissolves into a gel-like substance in your stomach. The gel helps bind fat (from a meatball you eat, for instance), keeping some of it from being absorbed and it also keeps sugar from being absorbed too quickly, thus helping to reduce cholesterol and maintain steady blood sugar levels. 

Examples of soluble fiber foods include oatmeal, nuts and seeds, beans, apples, and berries. 

Insoluble fiber is not water-soluble and acts as a bulking agent to your stool. Found in foods such as carrots, green leafy vegetables, whole wheat bread, and brown rice, it absorbs water as it moves through the digestive tract and is then excreted, helping to prevent constipation. 

How Much Fiber Do You Need?

Instead of tediously calculating grams of fiber before each meal, look for ways to incorporate fiber into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. 

Below are some recommendations of small changes and simple swaps that will increase your fiber intake. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables have the benefits of both micronutrients and fiber, acting as a nutrient powerhouse. 

• Eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of drinking fruit or vegetable juices.
• Eat the skin when possible. For example, the skin of an apple contains insoluble fiber, while the flesh contains soluble fiber.
• Choose whole wheat pasta, bread, and brown rice in lieu of their white counterparts.
• Replace less nutritious snacks like chips and candy with raw vegetables, such as carrots and hummus, or celery and peanut butter.
• Eat fiber-rich foods at each meal. Add beans to a salad or chili, or add a side salad at lunch.

When you are on the go or in a hurry, there will inevitably be times when you’ll need a to grab a quick snack. Here are some tips to selecting healthy packaged snacks that are full of fiber.

• Granola or cereal bars. Choose oat, bran or nut-based snack bar with at least five grams of fiber. 
• Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit is a fiber-rich snack. Be sure to check the nutrition label to determine appropriate portion size since trail mix can be quite calorie dense.
• Whole grain crackers or popcorn contain fiber and are easy to transport and store. 
• Whole grain or bran cereal. Add bran cereal to yogurt for a boost of fiber.

Fiber is an important part of a healthy diet with a multitude of health benefits. These simple tips help you add more dietary fiber to your diet and may even help add years to your life. 

Caroline K. Leung is a registered dietitian. She has a keen interest in prenatal nutrition and is currently a nutrition fellow at New York-Presbyterian’s Ambulatory Obstetrics clinic.