Adding more fiber to your diet has multiple health benefits, such as lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease, preventing and relieving constipation, and most of all, aiding in weight loss [source: Mayo Clinic].
The way fiber works is simple. “As fiber winds its way through your digestive system, it grabs fats and carries them all the way through to the colon, where a fat-and-fiber package is bundled, water is extracted, and the bundle eliminated from the body,” explained Vegetarian Times. Found in rough bulks of fruits and vegetables, fiber has no calories, makes you fuller faster, and isn’t digested by your body.
Just how much fiber do we need per day? Professional answers are varied. According to the Institute of Medicine, women need 25 grams of fiber per day and men need 38 grams, while the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed. That means if you consume 2,000 calories a day, you need 28 grams of fiber.
But just like the debate for the recommended daily caloric intake, fiber intake depends on your age, gender, height, weight, and physical activity. The University of Maryland’s Medical System created this online fiber calculator to help people get an estimate of their daily fiber needs.
We tried the online calculator and entered the following details: 25 years old, 5'4" in height, female, small frame, and two hours of light exercise per day. The result: We need to take 1,244.6 calories and 20 grams of fiber per day.
Soluble vs. Insoluble
When reading labels of food items, it normally states the food’s total amount of dietary fiber per serving. In reality, there are actually two kinds of fiber—insoluble, also known as cellulose, which is found in the peels and husks of plant foods, and soluble, which is found in the fleshy interiors.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and as it goes through the body, it attracts water to form a gel. It helps reduce cholesterol and makes your stomach feel fuller by delaying digestion. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, so it passes through you gastrointestinal tract relatively intact, speeding up the passage of food and waste through your gut in the process. It gives your digestive system a laxative effect, helping prevent constipation. [source: Web MD]
Take an apple for example. The peel contains insoluble fiber, while the inside of the fruit contains soluble fiber.
Insoluble fibers are found mainly in whole grains and peels of vegetables, while soluble fibers are found in the fleshy interiors of fruits and veggies. Most plant-based foods, such as oatmeal and beans, contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. To receive the best health benefits, Mayo Clinic suggests eating a wide variety of high-fiber foods.
Natural vs. Supplement
You can find extracted fiber in the form of tablets and powders, but many dieticians recommend that you get your fiber from natural sources. “Most health care professionals would advise a healthy adult to eat a pear or a handful of raisins instead of turning to a supplement,” reported Vegetarian Times. “Satisfying your daily fiber needs with food is the best way to get a healthful balance of soluble and insoluble fiber.”
According to Mayo Clinic, some people do need a fiber supplement if dietary changes aren’t sufficient or if they have certain medical conditions, such as constipation or diarrhea. Before taking any fiber supplements, it’s best to check with your doctor to know if the brand or type you are taking is safe, and how much to take.
Don’t Forget The Water
One of the downsides to eating more fiber is potentially getting intestinal gas, cramping, and abdominal bloating. Tip: Don’t add too much fiber too quickly into your diet and don’t go above the required amount. Do it gradually over a period of a few weeks and make sure you drink plenty of water. Fiber works best when it absorbs water. According to Live Strong, if your water intake is too low while your fiber intake is high, your bowel movement becomes more difficult, and your stools, hard and dry. “Drinking adequate water will help you avoid the gas, bloating, cramping, and constipation that can occur when you increase your consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.”