The benefits of dietary fiber

For The Baltimore Sun
In addition to aiding in satiety, fiber is an important component to a heart-healthy diet.

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute guest posts to The Baltimore Sun's Picture of Health blog. The latest post is from Caroline Meehan.

Are you looking for something to help you feel full quickly, regulate your bowels, lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and improve blood sugar control? It's fiber, and it is in many of the foods we commonly consume including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains.

Part of the carbohydrate family and made from plants, fiber is unique because it does not break down in the body or raise blood sugars quickly like other carbohydrates (such as white bread). Because it takes longer to digest, fiber can help you feel fuller longer, making it a key aspect to weight management. In addition to aiding in satiety, fiber is an important component to a heart-healthy diet and can assist in bowel regularity.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble fiber.

Soluble fiber forms a gel in the body by absorbing water. Soluble fiber plays an important role in heart health by binding to cholesterol and eliminating it from the body. Soluble fiber can assist with diarrhea relief and constipation prevention because of its gel-forming ability. Sources of soluble fiber include nuts, barley, beans, flaxseed, oats, apples and oranges.

Insoluble fiber does not absorb water as it passes through the body. It too can assist with bowel regularity and constipation prevention. Sources of insoluble fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grain products and bran cereals.

How much fiber do we need? The Institute of Medicine recommends 25 grams of fiber per day for women and 38 grams per day for men up to age 50. After age 50, 21 grams of fiber per day is recommended for women and 30 grams per day for men.

Check out the label. Dietary fiber is located under the "Carbohydrates" section of the Nutrition Facts label. Look for products with at least 3 grams of fiber. Foods with 5 or more grams of fiber per serving are considered high in fiber.

Up your water intake. Because fiber can absorb water, it is important to increase your fiber intake slowly and drink plenty of water to prevent bloating and stomach discomfort.

Tips for adding fiber into your diet:

•Make old fashioned oatmeal for breakfast.

•Grab an orange or apple for a mid-morning snack.

•Use 100% whole wheat bread when making a sandwich.

•Snack on carrots and hummus.

•Fill half of your dinner plate with colorful vegetables.

•Add black beans to a salad.

The bottom line. Eat a balanced and colorful diet. Aim to make half of your grains whole and shoot for 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

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