Fiber: dietary superstar: increase your fiber intake and reap the many benefits, including lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk of heart disease
Fiber is a key component of a healthy diet. The American Dietetic Association advises adults to consume 20-35 grams of fiber daily, but most of us consume only half this amount–or even less.
It may take some effort to add more fiber to your diet, but the results will be well worth it. “Adequate fiber intake lowers cholesterol, which helps reduce risk of coronary artery disease,” says Alex Ky, MD, a colorectal specialist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Fiber also is linked with lower rates of cancer, digestive disorders, and diabetes.
Fiber facts. There are two types of fiber–soluble and insoluble–and both are beneficial. “Insoluble fiber binds to water, making the stool bulkier and easier to pass. It also increases the rate at which wastes are removed from the body. This helps prevent constipation, hemorrhoids and diverticulosis, and may decrease the risk of colon cancer,” explains Dr. Ky. Soluble fiber slows digestion and facilitates absorption of nutrients. Oats, beans, and apples are good sources of soluble fiber; insoluble fiber is found in wheat bran, whole grains, and some vegetables. However, if you’re adding fiber to your diet, be sure to accompany it with six to eight glasses of water daily. Too much fiber with too little water can cause constipation.
Fiber has been proven to reduce blood cholesterol levels, which is associated with lower risk of arterial disease. If your cholesterol is in the borderline high range (200 to 220 mg/dL), ask your doctor if you can try a high-fiber, low-fat diet combined with daily exercise before using a statin drug. However, those with very high cholesterol levels usually require a statin to get their cholesterol out of the danger zone.
Fiber also has been linked to lower blood pressure. For diabetics, fiber improves blood glucose levels by slowing the absorption of sugar. The American Diabetes Association suggests that diabetics consume more than the normal recommended amount: 25-50 grams daily.
Where to find it. Oats top the list of four-star fiber foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that diets containing whole oats lowered total and LDL blood cholesterol. For each gram of fiber, LDL decreases 2.2 gm/dl. “Fiber found in oats is better at lowering blood cholesterol than fiber in wheat,” Dr. Ky explains.
Other fiber powerhouses include beans and legumes such as lentils and split peas, and whole grains like barley, bulgur wheat, and cornmeal. Start your day with a high-fiber cereal or eat a serving of dry cereal as a snack.
Leave the peel on your apples, pears, and potatoes, because much of their fiber is found in the skins. Citrus fruits are another good source of fiber, as are dates, raspberries, prunes, artichokes, and spinach.
Fiber supplements, available in powder and capsule form, “are a very acceptable source of fiber,” states Dr. Ky. However, fiber-rich foods contain many essential nutrients–such as vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals–that these supplements lack. So enhance your diet with fiber-rich foods for maximum benefit.
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