Many people know of “fiber” as a buzzword when talking about how to improve your diet, but few actually understand what fiber is and how it helps. The most essential fundamental to grasp when talking about fiber is that it is essentially indigestible, meaning you won’t actually absorb any nutrients from eating more fiber. It can, however, help you maintain a regular digestive system and may lower your risk of heart disease. There are actually two distinct types of fiber, however, and it is essential that you increase your intake of both of them when adding more fiber to your diet.
Types of Fiber: Soluble and Insoluble Fiber
The two types of fiber are soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water while insoluble does not. While both types of fiber can help regulate digestion, they do so in different ways.
Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance when it comes into contact with water. It stays in your stomach for long periods of time, which helps you feel full longer. A full stomach can help with weight regulation and can also help keep blood sugar levels more stable, hence helping prevent diabetes. Soluble fiber also prevents some of the absorption of LDL, otherwise known as “bad cholesterol.” Being high in soluble fiber is why you will often hear Cheerios, oatmeal, and other foods touted as preventing heart disease. These statements haven’t been proven by the FDA because the actual effect on heart disease hasn’t been thoroughly investigated, so you will always see an asterisk (*) next to these claims. There are lots of easy sources through which you can add more soluble fiber to your diet. Some examples include oats, beans, seeds, nuts, peas, lentils, oranges, apples, blueberries, cucumbers, and carrots. The common fiber supplement psyllium is also high in soluble fiber if you can’t get enough from your foods.
Insoluble fiber is equally important to add to your diet, though it acts in an opposite manner to soluble fiber in your digestive system. Foods that are high in insoluble fiber don’t dissolve in water, so their primary purpose is to speed up digestion. They pass through your digestive tract relatively intact and prevent constipation by adding bulk to stool. Some sources of insoluble fiber that you can add to your diet include whole grains, bran, barley, whole wheat, celery, green beans, lettuce, spinach, grapes, cabbage, and tomatoes. The skins of some fruits and vegetables like apples and potatoes are high in insoluble fiber though their flesh is high in soluble fiber. This combination makes these foods great sources of both types of fiber.
How Much Fiber Do You Need?
So how much fiber do you really need to add to your diet? It is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that most women consume about 25 grams of fiber per day and men consume upwards of 35 grams. Most Americans only consume about 15 grams per day, so if you think you fall into that category you should likely double your fiber intake. Rather than focusing too much on eating more of one type of fiber or the other, you should try to get a relatively good balance of both soluble and insoluble. Add fiber to your diet slowly so that your digestive system doesn’t get overwhelmed. Once you start consuming enough fiber, you will likely notice an improvement in digestive health, and you may enjoy other benefits like lower cholesterol down the line.