What do you know about fiber?
It’s in the name of some cereals you might never buy.
It’s okay in a muffin, with or without raisins.
It can help you maintain a good weight.
You need to eat it to poop right.
All of this is true, but the most profound effect of a high-fiber diet is that it can drastically reduce your chances of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease or stroke.
Grab another muffin and we’ll tell you why.
How Fiber Protects Your Heart and Health
Fiber is the carbohydrate that never gets a bad rap. Since your body can’t digest it, fiber passes through the body creating bulk in your poop essential for bowel health. You’ve likely heart of this health benefit of fiber, yet it’s much more important than that.
Research shows that a high-fiber diet can lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. A compilation of 66 studies (called an umbrella review of meta-analysis) showcases the amazing work fiber does in the body. This research finds that people eating the highest amounts of dietary fiber reduce their chances of developing coronary heart disease and stroke by 7-24% and drop their risks of dying from cardiovascular disease by 17-28%.
Fiber keeps you healthy and lowers risks in a variety of ways.
- It can lower your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the second leading cause of kidney disease and failure.
- It improves serum cholesterol levels (the total amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglycerides in the blood). High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
- It may reduce inflammation in the body by improving the pH levels in and permeability of the gut, which are related to leaky gut and depression as well as the overall health of the gut-brain axis.
- It helps control blood sugar by slowing the absorption of sugar, which is important if you have diabetes or if you want to lower your risks of developing type 2 diabetes.
- It can help you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight because high-fiber foods are filling and keep you satiated longer.
- It’s crucial for your body to eliminate cholesterol, waste, and toxins from food and the environment.
- It may help you live longer because studies show it lowers risk of certain types of cancer including colon, gastric, and breast cancer, in addition to reducing risks of heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure.
Despite the multitude of health gains available from eating tons of fiber, most Americans don’t. Naturopathic Doctor Martin Milner, CEO and medical director of the Center for Natural Medicine, recommends we eat at least 20 grams of fiber daily for heart health. Most people eat less than 16 grams of fiber a day, a minimum recommended by the Institute of Medicine. It's recommendations are:
38 grams a day for men age 50 and younger
30 grams a day for men over age 50
25 grams a day for women age 50 and younger
16 grams a day for women over age 50
Do You Eat Enough Fiber?
Are you getting enough fiber in your diet? If you make an “okay” sign with your thumb and index finger, that’s the size your stool should be, says Dr. Milner. If your stool is smaller, or loose and not bulky, or you struggle with constipation, you’re definitely not getting enough fiber. Likewise, if you struggle with high cholesterol, that's also be a sign you’re not getting enough fiber, he says.
How do we get more fiber in our diets? First, this is a lifestyle change not an overnight fix. If you try to increase fiber intake too quickly, you’ll probably get gas, cramping, and bloating (and then you’ll stop eating fiber!) It’s best to increase gradually.
Both insoluble and soluble fiber are linked to heart health and improvements in the gut microbiome. Sources of insoluble fiber include vegetables like cauliflower, artichokes, sweet potatoes, kale, potatoes, and lima beans. Whole grains, wheat cereal, and quinoa are high in insoluble fiber. Grains like bulgur wheat, kamut, teff, and barley are especially high in fiber – and delicious. Almonds and seeds also contain high amounts of insoluble fiber and are easy to add to oatmeal, salads, and recipes.
Foods high in soluble fiber include oatmeal, beans, and berries like blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Apples, citrus fruits, and pears are also high in soluble fiber. See 40 high fiber foods here.
Easy Ways to Add Fiber to Your Diet
Food swaps and healthy toppings can help you gradually increase dietary fiber. Here are a few ways to start.
- Try the high-fiber cereal or use it to make bran muffins.
- Swap white bread, pasta, and rice with whole-grain and brown or wild rice because processed and refined foods are very low in fiber.
- Eat fruit with meals, as snacks, and instead of dessert. Enjoy the apple and pear peels because that’s where much of the fiber is.
- Choose high-fiber snacks like a handful of nuts, raw veggies with hummus, or apples with peanut butter.
- Add fiber to foods you already enjoy like sprinkling chia, flax, or hemp seeds on oatmeal and salads.
Once you’ve increased your fiber intake a bit, you’ll be ready for Dr. Milner’s Power Salad which is full of fiber and nitrate-rich vegetables known for lowering blood pressure. Get his powerhouse ingredients, healthy dressing ideas, and secrets to a lasting salad here.
Need more help with cholesterol balance? Check out other nutritional tips from Dr. Milner in “I Have High Cholesterol, Now What?”
If changing your diet feels overwhelming, ask for help. A dietician or nutritionist can help you make lifestyle changes that stick as well as meals that are both healthy and delicious.