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The Role of Fiber in Your Diet

When you’re talking about diet, you usually hear that you need less of something. Less fat, less sugar, less cholesterol. But there is one thing that you need more of: fiber.

The use of fiber, bulk or roughage was once thought of as just filler. If you eat more fiber, there is less room in your stomach for high-fat, high-calorie foods. That is still being seen as one of fiber’s benefits, but it is now recognized that fiber itself plays a role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Fiber isn’t just a single substance but a combination of many different substances. These substances are all the parts of plants that can’t be digested by the human body.

Fiber is divided into two main categories: those that are soluble (capable of being dissolved in some solvent, usually water) and those that are insoluble. Most plants contain both types of fiber, though different plants contain a different balance of each.

Within the last decade, the term fiber has been replaced by dietary fiber. This term now means both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Foods that are high in fiber are beneficial because they are usually low in fat and calories and may be used to replace meats and other fatty foods that can increase the risk of colon cancer and coronary artery disease. Foods that are high in fiber also tend to be higher in antioxidants and other substances that may protect you against different forms of cancer.

People who eat a high-fiber diet are more likely to make other healthy choices in their lifestyle such as not smoking and getting more exercise.

Eating a healthy amount of dietary fiber could lower the risk of developing these diseases and conditions:

Diverticulosis. Ten percent of people over the age of 40 suffer from diverticulosis. Tiny pouches, called diverticula, form within the walls of the colon. When these pouches trap food, they might become inflamed and cause abdominal pain. Fiber may help prevent the formation of diverticula by reducing constipation and by reducing the pressure in the colon. This, in turn, helps to relieve the inflammation.

Colon cancer. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. This disease is more rare in countries that consume a diet low in meat and higher fiber foods.

Heart disease. Studies indicate that soluble fiber such as bran and barley helps to reduce total blood cholesterol primarily by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol.

No one seems to know exactly how much fiber is needed to significantly reduce cholesterol, but it is known that a typical high-fiber diet is low in fat and will reduce blood cholesterol. Foods that have been shown to be beneficial are oatmeal, grapefruit, apples and broccoli. Reducing the amounts of saturated fat from whole milk, cheese and meat are even better ways to control high cholesterol.

Breast cancer. The American Health Foundation in New York found that wheat bran (insoluble fiber) reduces blood estrogen levels, which may affect the risk of breast cancer. There is no conclusive evidence to support this theory at this point. But, it could be that when people eat more fiber they tend to eat less fat which is believed to contribute to breast cancer.

Diabetes. Studies have shown that soluble fiber improves blood sugar control and can thereby reduce the need for insulin or medication in people with diabetes. It is believed that fiber delays the emptying of the stomach and slows the absorption of glucose in the intestine.

When you are starting a diet higher in fiber, increase the amounts of fiber that you eat gradually. Be sure to drink plenty of water to keep the fiber moving through your system.

Jude Wright is an author and webmistress of multiple websites. Visit her site for nutrition information, healthy recipes and meal plans.