Fiber is one of those nutrients that many of us know is important but that remains a bit of a mystery.
Basically, when we talk about fiber, we’re referring to carbohydrates that the body can’t digest. Fiber is present in all plants, including whole fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Research shows that high intake of fiber aids in weight loss by reducing hunger, not to mention that it lowers the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and diverticulitis – a condition that is characterized by the inflammation of the intestines and poor digestion.
But fiber also provides you with another important benefit: it keeps you “regular.” As fiber blends into water, it adds bulk to stool and softens it, making elimination easier and more frequent.
To prevent getting “backed up,” most women should shoot for more than 20 grams of fiber a day; men should try to get more than 30 grams. However, studies show that most Americans consume nearly half of the recommended daily amount of fiber. And when you’re following a carbohydrate-restricted diet, you’re most likely to get only about seven to 15 grams of fiber a day, which in turn makes you prone to constipation.
To complicate matters further, constipation can also be a side effect appetite suppressants, which many patients use on on our weight loss programs, as they slow down the transit time through the large intestine.
Since constipation is much easier to prevent than to treat, we highly recommends that you take a fiber supplement every day. Keep in mind that a single serving of a fiber supplement (such as two teaspoons of Benefiber or an individual packet of Metamucil) is equal to three grams of fiber, so even if you’re taking it three times a day, you’re only getting nine grams of fiber a day. The way to go, then, is to eat a variety of foods high in fiber throughout the day (see list below), take a fiber supplement, and drink lots of water to flush it down.
If you don’t drink extra water along with high-fiber diets, this actually increases the risk of constipation since fiber needs water to do its intestinal sweeping job. More fluids in your diet adds more fluid in your bowels, lessening constipation and thus helping the body release excess weight.
Some helpful tips about fiber:
- Increase slowly. Adding lots of fiber too quickly can lead to gas and bloating, as good bacteria within the colon help break down the fiber and thus produce gas as a by-product. So, increase your fiber gradually. For example, if you’re using Benefiber, take two teaspoons with a meal for one week, then add two teaspoons twice daily for one week, then go up to two teaspoons three times per day.
- Try different brands. Different sources of fiber may produce different amounts of gas, and the effects vary from one person to another. This makes the selection of the best type of fiber a matter of trial and error.
- Add fluids. Increasing fiber intake will only help if you’re drinking enough fluids along with it. Since fiber absorbs water, high amounts, without fluids, can actually aggravate, rather than alleviate constipation. So make sure to drink 100-128 ounces of fluids per day, preferably mostly water.
- Eat a variety of fiber-rich foods. Studies show that both soluble and insoluble fiber is necessary for regular bowel movements. Thus, what matters is not only the total amount of fiber that you consume, but also the types of fiber. Keep in mind that over-the-counter fiber supplements only provide soluble fiber, so make sure that you are getting additional sources, including insoluble fiber, from your diet. You’ll find plenty of insoluble fiber in vegetables such as green beans and dark green leaves; fruit skins and root vegetable skins, beans, seeds, and nuts. For example, substitute beans for meat (up to ½ cup a day) in chili and soups, and eat whole fruits and vegetables with their skin instead of juices.
Good dietary sources of fiber include:
- Medium artichoke = 10.3 grams
- Blackberries (1 cup) = 8 grams
- Raspberries (1 cup) = 8 grams
- Lentils (½ cup) = 8 grams
- Black Beans (½ cup) = 7.5 grams
- Medium pear = 5.5 grams
- Broccoli (one cup raw or ½ cup steamed) = 5.1 grams
- Edamame (½ cup) = 5 grams
- Medium apple = 4 grams
- Strawberries (1¼ cup) = 3.8 grams