7 Benefits of Fiber That Should Convince You to Eat Enough of ItSep. 15, 2022 - Katie McCallum
Fiber likely isn't the first line item you look for on a food nutrition label.
Perhaps your eyes instead search for added sugars or total carbohydrates, especially if you're trying to watch your blood glucose levels. Or maybe you look at the protein content if you're trying to help your muscles recover after a hard workout.
And while a food's fiber content doesn't need to be the first thing you examine, you're not doing yourself any favors if you ignore it.
Here's why: Most adults don't come anywhere close to consuming enough fiber each day.
"Only about 5% of men and 9% of women meet the daily fiber recommendation set by the National Academy of Medicine," says Amanda Beaver, a wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist.
This is a serious shortcoming since, as Beaver points out next, fiber benefits your health in many ways.
What does fiber do for the body?
"I think most people associate fiber solely with how it helps your gut or prevents constipation," says Beaver. "It does play important roles in your GI health, but the benefits of fiber extend well beyond that."
Here are 7 ways fiber benefits the body:
1. Fosters a diverse, happy gut microbiome
"Fiber isn't digested in our stomach like other foods," explains Beaver. "It instead passes through it and into our colon, where it becomes food for the beneficial bacteria in our gut."
Getting plenty of fiber, as well as a variety of types of it, means you're passing along plenty of food for these good, healthy gut bacteria to thrive on.
2. Promotes regular bowel movements
Fiber can help prevent both of these uncomfortable issues.
There are a few different types of fiber — including soluble, insoluble and viscous — and each can play a role in helping you have regular and healthy stools.
"Whole grains, in particular, are good for this since they contain a lot of insoluble fiber, which is the type of fiber that helps bulk up your stool while still keeping it soft," Beaver explains.
3. Keeps you feeling fuller for longer
"Fiber takes longer to digest than other nutrients, so it has an amazing filling power," says Beaver.
A huge benefit of incorporating fiber into meals and snacks is how it helps you feel full between them. While this may not directly lead to weight loss, it may help reduce overeating tendencies.
4. Helps lower high blood pressure
"Studies show that eating enough fiber can help improve blood pressure in those people whose levels are high," says Beaver.
With almost half of American adults suffering from elevated or high blood pressure, a condition that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, the cardiovascular benefits of fiber shouldn't be overlooked.
5. Balances cholesterol levels
"One particular type of fiber — viscous fiber — has a binding quality to it that can help trap excess bile and cholesterol in our GI tract, which our body then eliminates when we go to bathroom," explains Beaver.
This unique property can help maintain optimal cholesterol levels, benefitting heart health.
Some forms of soluble fiber are also helpful in lowering LDL cholesterol levels — the type of cholesterol that can collect in the blood vessels and lead to atherosclerosis, which is hardening and narrowing of the arteries that affects blood flow.
"For instance, oatmeal contains beta glucan, a type of soluble fiber that is also really good for lowering LDL cholesterol," adds Beaver.
6. Prevents blood sugar spikes
Soluble fiber also helps regulate blood sugar levels.
"Consuming soluble fiber with the rest of a meal slows down the rate at which glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream, helping to prevent blood sugar spikes," explains Beaver.
This improved control over blood sugar can help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
7. Associated with lower risk of several diseases
"Meeting the recommended daily fiber intake is proven to help with several different areas of disease prevention," says Beaver.
Getting enough fiber can help reduce the risk of:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Colorectal cancer
"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, so the cardiovascular benefits of fiber are one of the most important," Beaver adds.
Additionally, about 1 in 10 Americans has type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer rates are on the rise.
How much fiber should you have a day?
As mentioned, the vast majority of us don't eat enough fiber. But ... how much should you be aiming for each day?
The National Academy of Medicine recommends getting following amount of fiber per day:
- Women 50 years of age and younger: 25 grams
- Women 51 years of age and older: 21 grams
- Men 50 years of age and younger: 38 grams
- Men 51 years of age and older: 30 grams
"There's no guideline for grams of fiber per meal, per say, but I would recommend having a fiber rich food with every meal," says Beaver.
What foods are high in fiber?
An important step in identifying high fiber foods is knowing how to evaluate a nutrition label. A good source of fiber is one that contains at least three grams per serving. An excellent source is one that contains six grams per serving.
Fiber content isn't always shown on a nutrition label, though, so here's Beaver's cheat sheet of high fiber foods:
- Nuts, especially almonds and pistachios, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Beans and lentils, such as black beans, white beans, split peas, lentils, pinto beans, mung beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and edamame
- Whole grains, including bulgur, kamut, barley, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, whole wheat bread
- Veggies, like squashes, collard greens, kale, broccoli, carrots, spinach, Brussels sprouts, okra, asparagus, mushrooms
- Fruits, particularly avocado, raspberries, blackberries, persimmon, pears, oranges, apricots and apples
"I recommend trying these foods out and picking a few you find the most convenient and tasty to have at your meals and snacks," adds Beaver.
How to get more fiber in your diet
Sure, you can join in on the popular trend of slurping down some chia seed water.
There are also fiber supplements you could consider taking — though Beaver stresses the importance of aiming to get all the fiber you need through your diet. Fiber-rich foods come with additional benefits, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, that supplements can't provide.
If you need help incorporating more fiber into your day, here are a few of Beaver's simple tips:
- Oatmeal topped with berries
- Nuts as a snack
- Chia seeds added to a smoothie
- Beans or lentils as a side
- Avocado on top of tacos or whole wheat toast
- Pre-cut broccoli or Brussels sprouts roasted in an air fryer
- Microwave quinoa as a side
- Frozen kale added to a smoothie
- Berries or apples as a side with eggs
"We live in a very carb-phobic world, but it's important to know that several carbohydrate sources have a good amount of fiber in them," adds Beaver. "For instance, beans, lentils and whole grains are some of the fiber superstars, and there are a lot of benefits we miss out on if we're afraid to add them to our diet.
And those of us not avoiding carbs are likely eating the fiber-lacking options, which isn't great either.
For reference, a serving of barley contains six grams of fiber, whereas the same amount of white rice only contains two. Remember, a good source of fiber is one that contains at least three grams per serving.
Is there such a thing as too much fiber?
Getting too much fiber can irritate the GI tract, causing:
"Fiber tends to pull water into our GI tract," explains Beaver. "So, believe or not, consuming a lot of fiber — especially if you're not drinking enough water — can lead to dehydration and an increased chance of constipation," Beaver explains.
(Related: How Much Water Should You Drink In a Day?)
If you're eating a processed food, this may mean giving the nutrition label a glance. Concentrated amounts of fiber can be hiding in foods without you even realizing it, leading to unwanted symptoms.
"Many food manufacturers are adding a lot of fiber to their low-carb or no-sugar products, such as protein bars, powders and shakes, as well as low-carb bread and tortillas," says Beaver.
Certain types of fiber — inulin and chicory, in particular — can cause bothersome GI side effects like gas and bloating. For this reason, she recommends limiting protein bars and low carb foods that contain more than 10 grams of fiber. You'll want to check ingredient lists for these if you're noticing symptoms.
If checking labels of processed foods seems like a lot of work, Beaver emphasizes that your priority should be naturally fiber rich foods anyway.
"Fiber is best when it comes how it was packaged by nature," says Beaver. "Usually these foods have more moderate amounts of fiber that are better tolerated."
Plus, she adds that they offer countless other nutritional benefits a sugar-free protein bar just won't have, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.