Ask HE: How Much Fiber Do You Really Need?

by in Ask the Experts, February 3, 2010

Spinach Salad
It seems like everyone is talking about fiber lately. Marketers are touting their fiber-rich food products and some manufacturers are even adding more fiber in. You probably know fiber is “good for you” — well, here’s the 101 on how much you need in your diet.

Q: How much fiber do I really need in a day (and how do I get it)?

A: Stick to the basics and watch out for “faux” fiber.
The daily recommended amount of fiber all depends on who you are — that is, an active male needs more than a more sedentary female. Typically, the recommendation ranges from 20 to 38 grams per day. A good benchmark amount for any healthy adult is about 25 grams per day. Unfortunately, the average American only gets about 15 grams daily.

Now, some fiber basics. Fiber comes in two main forms: soluble fiber, which is found in oats, nuts, flax and beans, fruits and vegetables, and insoluble fiber, which comes from whole grains and also fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. Soluble fiber slows our digestion and helps keep blood sugar levels in check. Insoluble fiber, meanwhile, keep things moving through your digestive system. Both fiber types are good for you and many foods contain a combo of the two.

You want fiber in your diet for a few key reasons:
• It helps curb hunger, which keeps you feeling fuller, longer.
• Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol.
• Insoluble fiber helps your digestive system work properly.
• Fiber-rich foods are also high in healthy vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

Lately, fiber has become a hot buzzword. Grocery stores are full of products sporting labels that tour a food’s high fiber content. Some of these products contain “functional fibers” — that is, man-made fiber additives, which are created in the lab and added to foods such as yogurt, snack bars, crackers and pancake mixes. Even beverages and sugar substitutes such as Splenda are now offering “added fiber”!

When scanning an ingredient list, you may see these added fibers listed as inulin, pectin, cellulose, chicory root, chicory extract, polydextrose and oligosaccharides. These added fibers are safe to eat (and some are even added to replace fat in foods like light ice cream), but the jury is still out on whether they’re as good for you as naturally occurring fiber. It’s fine to work some of these faux-fiber foods into your day, but don’t get romanced by the marketing. To really get all of fiber’s benefits, stick to the real deal.

A word of warning — if you’re trying to increase your fiber intake, do it gradually to avoid stomach upset (drinking extra water helps, too). Getting that minimum 25 grams a day is easier than you think.

Sample Fiber-Filled Daily Menu
1 cup cooked oatmeal with 2 tablespoons raisins (5 grams of fiber)

Morning Snack:
Orange and 1/4 cup almonds (7 grams)

Spinach salad with 1/4 cup chickpeas, 10 cherry tomatoes and a slice of whole wheat bread (18 grams)

Afternoon Snack:
Apple with 1 tablespoon peanut butter (5 grams)

Grilled salmon with 1 medium baked sweet potato and 1 cup steamed broccoli (9 grams)

Daily total: 1,400 calories; 44 grams of fiber

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