You don’t have to eat a gritty bran muffin to enjoy fiber’s health perks.
We get it: Fiber isn’t always the sexiest of topics. After all, fiber might make you think of the chalky orange drink you watched your dad choke down, or the bland, gritty muffins your mom used to put in your lunch box.
The truth is, fiber has gotten an unfair image over the decades. You likely eat (and enjoy) a number of fiber-rich foods without even realizing it. Popcorn? That’s fiber. Apples? Yep, that’s fiber. Corn on the cob? Fiber! These fiber-rich foods are not only delicious, but they’re also *super* important to your overall health (not just your colon health).
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that doesn’t get digested into sugar molecules for energy, like starches do; instead, fiber passes through the intestines undigested. Fiber comes from plant foods, like beans, fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts (i.e., not just bran muffins).
Humans are blessed with not one but two types of fiber for health benefits: soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber, as the name suggests, can dissolve in water and forms a gel-like consistency in the digestive tract. It can help slowwww down digestion. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water, so it bulks up your stool and can keep food moving through the digestive tract.
Now why does all this matter? Fiber’s unique qualities provide crucial health benefits that can help ward off diseases and improve your overall quality of life, such as:
1. Fiber helps you stay “regular.”
Insoluble fiber—found in most grains, most vegetables, and legumes—pushes your stool through the intestines and can help relieve constipation. This is useful for everyone, but can be especially helpful for people with bowel disorders such as IBS with constipation.
(Psst … If you’re eating a lot of fiber and still having constipation, you might want to see a doctor.)
2. Fiber can help bring down “bad” cholesterol levels.
High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of atherosclerosis, or the hardening and narrowing of the arteries. This damage on the blood vessels strains the heart and may lead to heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
Soluble fiber—which is primarily found in oats, beans, and some vegetables—has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
3. Fiber makes your meal more filling and satisfying.
Because fiber slows down the digestion of your meal, it can leave you feeling full for hours. That’s why oatmeal is more filling than a slice of toasted white bread.
Constantly feeling peckish throughout the day? Try adding more fiber to your meals and snacks to stave off excessive food cravings between meals. Over time, this added fiber may help with weight management. Learn more about the type of fiber that can help with weight loss.
4. Fiber improves blood sugar control.
Fiber’s digestion-slowing action also aids with glucose levels. Starches and sugars are digested quickly in the body and can cause a sudden spike in blood sugar. Poor blood glucose control can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (or lead to complications of diabetes if you already have the illness).
To put it simply, research shows a fiber-rich diet significantly reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes compared to a low-fiber diet (so stock up on your favorite veggies).
Experts recommend 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily, but Americans only get about half of that, on average (womp womp). That’s tragic, considering fiber can help prevent or manage some of the most prevalent diseases in the country.
Before you invest in fiber powders and supplements, studies have found that isolated fiber (in a capsule as opposed to a bean or vegetable) doesn't appear to have the same powerful health benefits. It’s best to get your fiber from whole foods, which offer a variety of vitamins and minerals that work together in the body to promote your overall health.
Looking for fiber-boosting diet tips?
Fiber. Cambridge, MA: Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (Accessed on February 27, 2019 at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber/#ref21.)
Fiber. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2018. (Accessed on February 27, 2019 at https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/fiber.)
Rough up your diet. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, 2010. (Accessed on February 27, 2019 at https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2010/08/rough-up-your-diet.)
Types of carbohydrates. Arlington, VA: American Diabetes Association. (Accessed on February 27, 2019 at http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/types-of-carbohydrates.html.)