We often read about the benefits of fiber in the digestive system. These days, it’s prominently featured in food staples as a natural attribute or as an additive. Likewise, a plethora of supplemental fiber products are available online, stocked in grocery stores and on drug store shelves, to give us that added fiber we may be missing in our less than complete diet. But what does fiber really do for us and how much should we be taking in? It’s a well-known fact we need dietary fiber for our bodies to function properly.
Some vegetarians get their share of daily fiber through natural foods, leaving the additives and supplements for those of us more fiber-challenged from our normal dietary habits. Whatever the source, fiber is important for digestive health in people of any age and it’s helpful in the prevention of many conditions, including acid reflux (or GERD), inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), obesity and diverticulitis. Fiber is essential in maintaining “regularity”. Regularity is a “nice” word to use, in an effort to avoid any unpleasant sounding terms to describe proper digestion and elimination of our waste. No one really wants to utter the words, “constipation”, “diarrhea”, “irritable bowel syndrome” or other such colorful words or phrases, but everyone goes through a period of discomfort and no one is immune. We just need to do our best to limit the times when we do have issues, principally by making sure we get our daily fiber.
What’s the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber and do we need both? Insoluble fiber is the most important component in moving food through the digestive track. This type of fiber is largely indigestible, helping to bulk up stools and reduce constipation. Insoluble fiber is found in whole fruits and vegetables, seeds and whole grains.
Soluble fiber plays a different but still important role. Rather than passing through the digestive tract intact, as does insoluble fiber, soluble fiber is digested into a gel-type substance, absorbing water and slowing down digestion but also providing a prebiotic effect. Prebiotics, like those found in some soluble fiber sources, promote the growth of healthy digestive bacteria in the intestinal tract, allowing foods to be broken down more easily and aiding absorption of vital nutrients. So, as with most check and balance systems, the two types of dietary fiber work together but with separate functions, to aid in healthy digestion.
We now understand a little better how the process works. The next question is, how much do we need and are we typically getting enough fiber in our diet?
The answer to the latter part of the question is that many of us do not ingest enough healthy fiber in our diets. The typical American gets about half of the daily recommended supply of dietary fiber each day. Daily fiber needs differ with age and gender, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all recipe. The following are guidelines for recommended daily fiber needs:
- Women and Adolescent Girls—25 grams
- Women age 50 and over—21 grams
- Men and Teenage Boys—38 grams
- Men age 50 and over—30 grams
- Children age 4 to 8—25 grams
- Toddlers age 1 to 3—19 grams
- Women and Adolescent Girls—25 grams
*All figures represent daily recommended total fiber (including soluble and insoluble combined)
We have the numbers. Now for the best sources of fiber in the foods we love to eat and in dietary supplements:
You can never go wrong with eating more fruits and vegetables! Whether for the rich sources of essential vitamins often lost in prepared fruits and vegetables or for fiber needs, the fresh stuff is always the better choice at meals or at snack times. Then there are whole grains. Whole grain cereals and breads retain those all-important sources of insoluble fiber, providing better digestion and even contributing to heart health! Stay away from refined grains. They may be a little tastier going down but your body will prefer the whole grains to the refined flours any day!
Supplements offer a great way to take in that fiber we just can’t seem to get in our daily diet. Many choices are out there, including fully dissolving powders, whole food supplements and additives like flax seed that we can sprinkle over our foods for an extra boost of fiber. No longer are we left with the old standards of prunes or gritty mixes for our fruit juices in the mornings. With all the advances in fiber delivery these days, there’s really no excuse for not getting our fiber needs from our foods or from fiber supplements.
Make a friend with fiber, and incorporate dietary fiber into your routine daily for better health.