Tammi Flynn, a registered dietitian in Wenatchee, Washington, doesn’t need studies in medical journals to tell her about the showstopping benefits of fiber. When clients come to her wanting to lose weight, she advises them, as might be expected, to exercise and eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. However, a few years ago she also began slipping in a secret ingredient: apples. She’s found that those who follow her suggestion to eat three apples a day, one before each meal, lose 30 percent more weight, on average, than clients who followed a similar regimen, minus the apples.
How can a few apples make such a big difference? One word: fiber. A medium-size apple (about as big as a tennis ball) contains roughly three grams of the stuff, and fiber has a crafty way of tricking the body into eating less. By increasing the bulk in your stomach, it makes you feel full without adding a lot of calories.
Of course, promoting weight loss isn’t even fiber’s biggest claim to fame. Heaps of studies indicate that fiber wards off all sorts of serious diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and diverticulitis, a common colon disorder. Just how powerful is it? A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a cholesterol-lowering diet that included fiber-rich foods can be as effective at lowering cholesterol as drugs. Indeed, fiber’s first champion, 1870s cereal baron Dr. John Kellogg, who fed fiber-rich grains to all his patients to cure “poisons in the bowel,” would be mighty gratified to hear about its exalted status.
But he’d be puzzled by its less-than-stellar role in the popular diet plans now sweeping the country. In the Atkins, South Beach, and Glucose Revolution diets, fruits like apples—along with other good fiber sources such as beans and whole-grain breads—are downplayed in favor of fats and lean sources of protein. Why?
The answer lies in the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates—and longtime confusion between the two. Simple carbs like pastries, breads, and snack foods not only raise blood sugar levels, they often come with heaping doses of sugar, fat, and salt, and don’t contain much fiber. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, such as whole-grain breads, beans, fruits, and vegetables, generally don’t cause blood sugar levels to spike and do provide plenty of fiber. The diet gurus acknowledge that such carbs are healthier, but their regimens still include way fewer carbs—of both kinds—than most nutritionists recommend.
And fiber gets short shrift in the process. Some of the diets suggest fiber supplements to fill in the gap, particularly in the early stages. But the problem with this notion, say nutritionists like Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian and author of the American Dietetic Association Guide to Better Digestion, is that supplements don’t provide the full range of nutrients found in food.
Plus, most of them contain primarily one kind of fiber: the soluble version that’s abundant in oats, lentils, beans, many vegetables, and fruits such as apples, oranges, and grapes. Soluble fiber is what’s responsible for fiber’s heart disease protection. It forms a gelatinous goo in the GI tract, which slows the absorption of glucose and fatty acids into the blood. Over time, this reduces cholesterol.
That’s important, but we need to get insoluble fiber, too. It’s found mainly in whole-grain breads and cereals and many vegetables (which tend to contain both types of fiber). Insoluble fiber is what protects your stomach and colon by stimulating the gastrointestinal tract and speeding waste products through the system.
The truth is, most of us don’t get enough of either type, partly because the best fiber sources are foods that people don’t tend to eat regularly. Plus, even some foods that trumpet their fiber content, such as whole-grain breads, often contain as few as 2 grams per slice. The average person gets about 12 grams of fiber a day—equivalent to a bowl of high-fiber cereal and two slices of whole-grain bread—but the recommended daily intake is 20 to 35 grams. And even that amount strikes some as too conservative. Some studies have shown that people with diabetes can benefit by eating up to 70 grams a day.
Physician David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat, says the first step in upping your fiber intake is to substitute fiber-rich foods for those you already eat. Take breakfast cereal, for instance. “Most people don’t take advantage of the chance to get more fiber by selecting a brand of cereal with a lot of whole grains,” Katz says. “These are easy to get used to and can provide 4 to 10 grams of fiber per bowl.”
A small change, perhaps—but big enough to save a person’s life. Just ask Harvard University investigators who looked at the dietary records of some 86,000 participants in the long-running Physicians’ Health Study. The researchers found that men ages 40 to 84 who ate a fiber-rich whole-grain cereal every day had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease over the next several years than those who never ate whole-grain cereals.
It’s also a good idea to get hold of a resource that lists the nutrient content of foods so you can add more fiber to your repertoire. There are probably lots more than you think. Who knew that avocados, for instance, were brimming with fiber?
It’s important, though, to build up your fiber consumption gradually. A sudden surge can cause digestive problems such as gas and constipation, says nutritionist Bonci. Since most people have no idea how much fiber they eat, you’ll need to track your diet for a day or two and count up the grams. (Most food packages list fiber amounts on the label.) Then increase that amount by 3 to 5 g per week until you reach the recommend total.
The low-carb crowd might not approve, but don’t worry: You’ll probably get plenty of thanks from your waistline, and your overall health will benefit, too.
The Scoop on Fiber Supplements
Even with the best of intentions, it’s not always easy to get a full day’s requirement of fiber from food. Hence, supplements. The most common type recommended by doctors and diet gurus is sold in powdered form under brand names like Metamucil and Citrucel. But if you can’t handle the texture or taste, these brands also come in tablet form. Other good fiber capsules include FiberCon, Ultra-Fiber, and Twinlabs FiberSol. (Whichever brand you choose, be sure to take them with plenty of water.)
For the most pleasant option of all, try the fiber wafers or cookies by Metamucil or Fiber Wisdom (sold in health food stores); they’re easy to grab on the go and taste good, too. Remember that supplements contain mostly soluble fiber, so be sure to get some insoluble fiber, as well, from foods. In general, it’s best to get as much fiber as you can from your diet, so you don’t miss out on the other nutrients in fiber-rich foods.
How to Sneak it in
Our grandmothers called fiber “roughage,” and we still turn up our noses at the notion. But with a little ingenuity, you can turn fiber-rich foods into meals that still taste great.
- Berry delicious: Top your breakfast cereal or ice cream with fresh raspberries or blueberries (dried are great, too), or make a berry-based smoothie.
- Add avocado: Slice an avocado onto your lunchtime sandwich or whip up some guacamole and use as a spread or dip.
- Look south of the border: Eat burritos, tostadas, and other bean-heavy Latin American dishes.
- Choose ’chokes: When it’s too time-consuming to cook fresh artichokes, add artichoke hearts to salads or pasta dishes.
- Beat cereal blahs: Mix several kinds together to vary flavors and textures.
- Make veggies easy: Cut up cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, and other vegetables and keep them in the fridge, along with a healthy dip like hummus.
- Plant some seeds: The sesame seeds on a hamburger bun add an extra half-gram of fiber.
- Go for garbanzos: Add half a cup of chickpeas to a pot of soup.
- Catch a germ: Sprinkle toasted wheat germ over cereal or yogurt.
- Fling flaxseed: Toss some ground flaxseed into oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies; it’s a good source of omega-3s, too.
By Joe Mullich