Most people know that the dietary choices we make play a huge role in heart health. Eating the right foods can dilate your arteries, reduce inflammation, prevent clotting, and promote circulation. What is less well known is the role of fiber in heart health.
I have identified five heart healthy food groups: adequate fiber, healthy fats, lean protein, beneficial beverages, and fabulous flavors. Fiber comes first in that list because it is clearly the most critical!
Fiber is the woody part of the plant that is partially digested. (Fiber is also sometimes called roughage.) Though scientists have divided fiber into two categories—soluble and insoluble—based on how they behave in laboratory settings, the bottom line is that all fiber is good for you.
Why We Need Fiber
Insoluble fiber is great for digestion and intestinal function. It keeps things moving thereby preventing putrification, and provides the bulk that keeps you regular.
Sources of soluble fiber (beans, nuts, oats, vegetables, and fruits) are especially effective at improving your cholesterol profile and blood sugar control, as fiber decreases blood sugar levels by slowing the release of sugars from your stomach to your intestines. In addition, it is critical for ensuring that the nasty stuff your liver pulls out of the bloodstream is actually expelled from your body.
There are many side benefits to consuming more fiber. Fiber-rich foods contain thousands of antiaging nutrients, many of which we probably haven’t even discovered yet. Plant pigments are a case in point. The blue in blueberry, red in tomato, green in kale, and the orange in butternut squash protect every cell in your body from aging. They protect your heart’s ability to pump and produce energy, decrease the artery stiffening that occurs with aging, lower blood pressure, and prevent the cells lining your arteries from growing plaque.
Sadly, the average American eats only 12 grams of fiber a day—I recommend that you eat 30 to 50 grams. But it’s important to increase your fiber intake slowly. Start by increasing your daily intake five to 10 grams. After a week go up another five to 10 grams. Eating too much fiber too quickly (say, zealously jumping from less than 10 grams a day to more than 40) could cause abdominal bloating and perhaps even cramping. While 40 grams may sound like a lot, it is achievable. Here’s how to get enough fiber in your system to make a difference.
Fiber Sources: Vegetables and Fruits
All vegetables and fruits in their whole, unprocessed form are packed with valuable antiaging nutrients. Any vegetable that holds its shape after cooking—like green beans, cauliflower, artichokes, fennel, asparagus, red peppers, carrots, and broccoli—will also have plenty of healthful fiber. There are three to five grams of fiber in a one cup serving, so if you eat five cups a day, you’ll add about 20 grams of fiber. Enjoying at least four or five cups of produce daily will reduce your risk of a heart attack and stroke by 35 percent all by itself without any side effects. No drug is this beneficial!
And the benefits are not just for the heart: Studies on the topic unanimously show that eating more fruits and vegetables will reduce some cancer risks and result in weight loss. Diets that tell you to stop eating fruits and vegetables have got it all wrong.
Greens are also rich in calcium, fiber, vitamin K, magnesium, potassium, and folic acid, as well as a host of cancer-preventing plant pigments. Eating at least two cups of leafy greens daily will help your arteries to dilate and will block inflammation, thus stopping arterial plaque growth. Bear in mind, however, that there are some limitations with salads. Lettuce and fresh spinach are mostly water so they collapse down to a much smaller amount when cooked. That’s why salads—though excellent sources of nutrients and plant pigments—shouldn’t be your main source of fiber. It’s best to rely on beans and other vegetables instead.
Crusade for Cruciferous Vegetables
Fiber-rich cruciferous vegetables—like cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts—are high in enzymes that remove toxic compounds from your body. Eating one cup of these vegetables daily will help to control your blood pressure as well. They’re also great sources of vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. And they contain compounds that fight cancer and help restore normal hormone balance for women and men alike. You can eat these vegetables raw, steamed, or lightly sautéed, but be careful not to overcook them or they’ll lose their valuable properties.
Berries Are Beautiful
Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, bilberries, and cherries are among the brightly colored fruits and vegetables that have so many antioxidant benefits. They’re also a great source of fiber. Toss them on your oatmeal or mix them with your nonfat yogurt for breakfast. Sprinkle them on your salad or take them for a snack. Berries improve artery function and protect your brain from aging, so aim to have at least 1/2 cup to one cup of berries every day.
Beans Are a Wonderfood
Beans are fiber superstars, and we don’t eat nearly enough of them! In fact, beans have more fiber than any other commonly eaten food: 10 – 14 grams per cup. If you add a half cup daily at first, you’ll add six grams of fiber. Over 30 days, you can build to one cup and add 12 grams of fiber. This is important because 1/2 to one cup of beans a day has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol by five percent and increase healthy HDL cholesterol two to three percent.
Beans also help you to feel full, and their very high fiber content can control blood sugar levels. The antioxidant compounds in beans help block cholesterol and inflammation and protect your arterial lining beautifully. It’s not surprising, then, that eating one cup of beans daily has been shown to reduce your risk for heart attacks and strokes.
The musical fruit? Though you fill up with gas if you eat them only once in a while, studies have shown that if you eat beans every day for a month, gas production drops. It is better to eat them in small daily quantities (begin with 1/4 cup, then build towards 1/2 cup daily) and gradually increase portions over time.
It’s easy to enjoy beans as a side dish or add them to soups, salads, rice, and pasta dishes. A half of a cup of hummus dip with baby carrots makes a great snack.
Whole Grains Hold You
There are about four grams of fiber per cup in most whole grains. If you add two cups daily, you’ll add eight grams of fiber—but because of their impact on blood sugar, be sure to avoid having more than one cup of grain at any one time. (If your blood sugar remains high, stop eating grains.) The fiber in whole grains helps your intestinal function, and sources like steel cut oatmeal are great for lowering cholesterol.
Many diets restrict grain intake due to their blood sugar (glycemic) response. If you have problems with weight or blood sugar control, this may be wise. The key to success with whole grains is enjoying them as whole grain—not flour—and in small portions. Even whole grain flour has the same impact as table sugar on blood sugar levels, so people with blood sugar control problems should avoid both.
Look for gluten-free, easy-to-prepare grains with the highest nutrient content. That list includes quinoa, oats, wild rice, and brown rice. Your plate should have twice as many vegetables as grains, and these should be complemented with some form of lean protein.
Nuts Are Great for Fiber
People think of nuts as a source of healthy fats, which they are, yet they also are loaded with fiber. A one ounce serving of nuts—about a handful—contains three grams of fiber. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, or pistachios are all good choices.
Fiber Supplements Can Help You Reach Your Goals
Some people may find it difficult to reach 30 – 50 grams of fiber a day, so supplements can help the process along. All seeds are excellent sources of fiber: try ground flaxseed and chia seeds. Adding one tablespoon daily—a reasonable goal—will net you two grams of fiber. The great news about chia seeds is that you don’t even have to grind them.
Psyllium fiber is a 70 percent soluble fiber with cholesterol and blood sugar lowering properties. It’s an easy fiber source to add to drinks. The powder is also gluten-free, but read labels carefully as some psyllium wafers contain gluten.
There are many commercial fiber sources that can be added to a protein smoothie—aim for five to seven grams per serving.
As I mentioned earlier, the key to success is adding fiber gradually. Follow the recommendations in the table in this feature and you can eat your way to a healthier heart in 30 days.
Steven Masley, MD