What you need to know about dietary fiber

Sandra R. Cain For Better Living

Dietary fiber has become a household word. Most food labels in the supermarket now list dietary fiber. Even though fiber is not considered a nutrient, health professionals agree that most Americans don’t get nearly enough in their diet.

Dietary fiber is found only in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Complex carbohydrates which are not digested but are excreted from the body are called dietary fiber. Small amounts of some dietary fiber may be broken down by bacteria normally found in the intestine. Two types of dietary fiber are soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water while insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. Both types are important to health in different ways.

Soluble fibers are found in all types of peas and beans like lentils, split peas, pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and lima beans, as well as oats, barley, and some fruits and vegetables like apples, oranges, and carrots. Fiber from psyllium seed, an ingredient in some over-the-counter laxatives, is also in this group.

Insoluble fibers include whole grains, wheat and corn fiber, and many vegetables like cauliflower, green beans, and potatoes. The skins of fruits and vegetables are also good sources of insoluble fiber. Wheat bran is a good source of insoluble fiber, which is why it is added to many dry breakfast cereals.

Most foods contain a combination of soluble and insoluble fibers. Good sources of one type of fiber usually contain some of the other types of fiber as well. When you add fiber-rich foods to your diet, you usually get the benefits of both types of fibers.

Why should we eat high fiber foods?

Fiber has important benefits for health. The National Cancer Institute suggests that foods high in fiber may help protect against some types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. In Asian and African countries, colon cancer rates are very low. Incidence rises as these people adopt Western food and lifestyle habits.

Insoluble fiber, also known as “roughage”, aids digestion by trapping water in the colon. This promotes regularity and prevents constipation. Wheat bran, for example, is high in insoluble fiber. Diets high in insoluble fiber also help prevent two kinds of intestinal diseases, diverticulosis and hemorrhoids.

Soluble fiber is also beneficial in the diet. For people with diabetes, eating foods that contain soluble fiber can help lower the level of sugar in their blood and decrease insulin needs. Also studies have shown that eating one or two servings of soluble fiber help lower fasting blood sugar levels. Soluble fiber may also lower blood cholesterol levels and can also play an important role in weight control. Foods that are high in fiber are usually low in calories, take longer to chew, and provide a feeling of fullness.

How much fiber do we need?

The National Cancer Institute recommends an intake of 25 to 35 grams daily but the average American only consumes about 11 grams per day.

To add more fiber to your diet …

— Gradually increase the amount you eat to allow your digestive tract to adjust to the change. Adding fiber too quickly may cause gas, bloating or diarrhea. Also, drink plenty of water.

— Choose at least three servings of whole grains per day, like whole grain breads, buns, muffins or bagels. Choose foods where the first ingredient listed on food label says “whole grain or whole wheat;” breads, buns, bagels or muffins with added wheat or oat bran; corn bread made from whole, ground cornmeal; whole grain or brown rice; crackers, cookies and other snacks with a whole grain as the first ingredient on the label; whole or part whole grain pasta.

— Choose whole grains for breakfast, like oatmeal, whole grain or bran cereals. Combine a high fiber cereal with your favorite cereal for more fiber, flavor and variety, or whole grain or bran muffins, waffles or pancakes. If you bake muffins or bread, substitute whole wheat flour for half the white flour or add wheat or oat bran to the recipe.

— Choose a variety of foods. The greater the variety of foods chosen, the better the mix of soluble and insoluble fibers.

— Choose high fiber snacks. Fresh fruits, raw vegetables, nuts, and popcorn make good snacks.

— Choose legumes like dried beans or peas two to three times per week. These are one of the best sources of fiber. They contain soluble and insoluble fiber. Beans are easy to add to the diet. They can be added to salads, soups, stews, chilis or casseroles or used instead of meat.

— Choose fruits and vegetables and leave the skin on. The skin on many fruits and vegetables provides one third to one half of the fiber. Seeds also provide fiber and are found in berries, kiwi, figs, and sesame seeds.

— Choose whole fruit over juice. Fiber found mainly in the peel and pulp is removed to produce juice. Orange juice may have some pulp added back. Whole fruit is the best fiber choice among fruit.

— Substitute higher fiber ingredients in recipes. Replace one half of the flour with whole grain flour in homemade breads and add 1-2 T. bran to mixed dishes such as meatloaf, casseroles, or quiche.

— Experiment with new whole grains. Barley, buckwheat, bulger, millet, quinoa, rye berries, and wheat berries are all good sources of fiber. They can be used as breakfast foods or as substitutes for other grains that are commonly eaten. For example, barley can be used in soups and stews instead of noodles, rice or potatoes and bulger can be used in salads instead of pasta. Rye and wheat berries can be added to breads, and quinoa can be cooked and served like rice.

— Check labels for information on fiber. Nutrients required on food labels reflect current public health recommendations. Nutrition labels now list a Daily Reference Value (DRV) for nutrients, including fiber. The DRV for fiber is 25 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie diet for women or 30 grams per day based on a 2,500 calorie diet for men. Food labels list the fiber content per serving, so be sure the serving size on the label is what you consume or else calculate your fiber intake based on your serving size.

Source: University of Arizona Extension


Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

½ cup whole wheat flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 egg

¾ cup egg substitute

1 can (15 ounces) solid pack pumpkin

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

¼ cup canola oil

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

In a bowl, combine the first 8 ingredients. In another bowl, combine the egg, egg substitute, pumpkin, applesauce and oil. Stir into dry ingredients just until moistened. Stir in chocolate chips. Coat muffin cups with nonstick spray. Fill 2/3 full with batter. Bake at 400 degrees for 18 – 22 minutes. Cool 5 minutes before removing from pan. Yield: 2 dozen.

Sandra R. Cain is the Bladen County Extension director. She can be reached at sandra_cain@ncsu.edu or 910-862-4591.

Sandra R. Cain For Better Living
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