It might seem that taking a fiber supplement would be an easy way to get your daily dose of fiber. Experts recommend that adults get between 21 and 38 grams of fiber, with women at the lower end and men at the higher end. But according to the National Institutes of Health, only around 5% of the American population gets this amount. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate your body doesn’t break down. Instead, it passes through our digestive system.
There are two types of fiber: water-soluble fibers, which include pectin and gums, and insoluble fibers like cellulose or hemicellulose. Water-soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar and may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease if you consume it regularly. Some studies also suggest that fiber has anti-inflammatory benefits. Insoluble fiber helps you stay regular and avoid constipation by softening your stool.
What if you don’t eat a high-fiber diet? Can you get similar benefits from a fiber supplement and are fiber supplements a suitable replacement for fiber-rich foods?
Fiber-Rich Foods vs. Fiber Supplements
Fiber supplements and fiber-rich foods have different effects on the body. Fiber naturally occurs in plant foods like grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and beans. Fiber supplements are typically powders or pills made from purified wheat bran or psyllium husks.
Fiber supplements can be useful if you do not eat enough fiber-rich foods regularly. However, they don’t contain all the nutrients in fiber-rich foods like whole grain products such as whole wheat bread or oatmeal (such as B vitamins). Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes are other good sources of fiber and they’re packed with an array of minerals, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, as well as vitamins and phytonutrients. When you take a fiber supplement, you don’t get these additional components, only isolated fiber. Some brands also contain sugar substitutes including artificial sweeteners.
Fiber Supplements Contain a Single Fiber Type
When you eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other fiber sources, you get different types of fiber including soluble and insoluble fiber.
As mentioned, soluble and insoluble fibers are both essential for maintaining healthy digestion and regularity, but they work in different ways: Soluble fibers dissolve in water to form a gel-like material that slows digestion, so you feel full longer. Insoluble fibers don’t dissolve in water but instead help move food through your digestive system by adding bulk to waste matter so that it can pass through the body more easily.
Not All Fiber Supplements Are the Same
One fiber in fiber supplements is psyllium, from the psyllium plant, Plantago ovata. It’s effective for lowering cholesterol if you consume it regularly. It reduces cholesterol by binding with bile acids in the intestines and preventing them from being reabsorbed by the body. Psyllium also reduces insulin resistance, which can help lower blood sugar levels. Additionally, it increases satiety (feeling full), so you’ll feel more satisfied after eating a meal that contains psyllium husk.
Although psyllium is a common fiber in fiber supplements, you can also buy loose psyllium husks at many health food stores and add them to foods and beverages. However, psyllium is only one source of fiber. It doesn’t supply many of the nutrients food sources of fiber do. Other sources of fiber in supplements may include:
- Wheat dextrin
Fiber Supplements May Have Side Effects
Fiber supplements can cause bloating, gas, and digestive problems. If you’re new to fiber supplements or if you haven’t grown up eating a lot of fiber-rich foods. So, start with a low dosage and gradually increase it over time as your body adjusts.
Also, companies that make fiber supplements go to great lengths to market them as nutritionally equivalent to fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. But your body may not react the same way to a synthetic product as it does when you eat an apple. You may find that taking a daily supplement works for you, but if you want to get the bulk of your fiber from food, you’ll need to pay attention to the nutritional content of the food you eat.
In addition, fiber supplements can reduce the absorption of some medications, so let your doctor know if you’re taking one. Drink plenty of water if you do.
Fiber Supplements Could Be a Secondary Option
If you have difficulty tolerating fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains and fruits and vegetables, a supplement might be a way for you to get the fiber your diet lacks. However, it’s healthier to get fiber from nutrient-dense fiber-rich foods as opposed to a fiber supplement. As the National Institutes of Health point out, the impact fiber has on your gut and your health depends on the type of fiber, the amount you consume, and how the fiber interacts with your gut ecosystem.
To sum it up:
- Fiber supplements are not the same as fiber in food.
- Fiber supplements are not a substitute for fiber in food.
- Fiber supplements are not a substitute for whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, or beans.
- Just because it says “fiber” on the label does not mean that it is equivalent to eating whole foods like apples and bananas every day.
However, taking a fiber supplement may be better than getting little or no fiber in your diet. If you take a fiber supplement or increase the fiber in your diet, do it slowly to allow your digestive tract to adjust. Otherwise, you could experience bloating or tummy discomfort.
The bottom line is that fiber supplements can help you get more fiber in your diet, but they aren’t an adequate substitute for whole foods. You can still get the benefits of fiber by eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but if you don’t like the taste of those foods or don’t have access to them where you live then taking a supplement might be an alternative option but don’t assume the benefits are the same.
- Lambeau KV, McRorie JW Jr. Fiber supplements and clinically proven health benefits: How to recognize and recommend an effective fiber therapy. J Am Assoc Nurse Pract. 2017 Apr;29(4):216-223. doi: 10.1002/2327-6924.12447. Epub 2017 Mar 2. PMID: 28252255; PMCID: PMC5413815.
- “Health benefits of dietary fibers vary.” https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/health-benefits-dietary-fibers-vary.
- “Fiber supplements: Safe to take every day? – Mayo Clinic.” 22 Dec. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/fiber-supplements/faq-20058513.