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The Fiber 411

Updated on August 3, 2016
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Erin Nitschke is a health and human performance educator, an NSCA-CPT and ACE Health Coach & Fitness Nutrition Specialist.

The "Bulk" of the Matter

Fiber, otherwise known as the indigestible parts of plant foods, plays a critical role in helping us achieve and maintain healthy eating practices. Consuming a diet high in fiber can: reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels; regulate bowel habits; control blood sugar levels; create a feeling of satiety; and aid in weight loss (Mayo Clinic, 2016). In short, fiber is somewhat of a "super hero" in the nutrient universe.

In this article I will discuss and define the different types of fiber, differentiate between what is meant by "high in" and "a good source of" fiber, and outline food sources rich in fiber. Helpful links and resources are included at the end of this publication.


Fresh berries paired with high fiber cereals such as oatmeal is a winning fiber combo!
Fresh berries paired with high fiber cereals such as oatmeal is a winning fiber combo!

Test Your Fiber Knowledge

What is the recommended daily amount of fiber?

See results

The Fiber Facts

If you selected the third option in the above poll, you are correct. That said, a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (2014) noted the average daily intake of fiber for individuals age 2 and older was 16 grams. Given the intake guidelines, the average American diet is falling short.

You might be wondering why an underconsumption of fiber is such a concern. A diet consistently low in fiber can result in serious health consequences. For instance, low fiber intake contributes to poor digestive health, weight gain, cardiovascular disease and dysfunction, and ill controlled blood sugar levels (USDA, 2014).

As a health coach and college educator, one of the points I hit hard with clients and students is the benefits of a high fiber diet as well as quality sources of fiber. To start the conversation, I discuss the differences in fiber - because those differences are important to comprehend in order to make positive and sustainable changes to daily diet practices.

Types of Fiber

Fiber is classified in one of two ways: dietary fiber or functional fiber. Dietary fiber is obtained through the consumption of plant based foods; functional fiber is obtained through dietary sources which have added isolated fibers. When we consider these two categories of fiber together, we are referring to "total fiber".

Fiber is further classified by specific types: High-viscosity fibers and low-viscosity fibers. High viscosity, or soluble, fiber includes pectin (think of apples), gum (think of legumes) and psyllium seeds. These are the fibers and foods that slow the gastric emptying process and thereby result in a slower release of sugar in to the bloodstream. As a result, the insulin response is not dramatic. Remember - high levels of insulin are related to increased weight gain and place individuals at a higher risk of developing heart disease (Digate Muth, 2013).

In contrast, low viscosity, or insoluble, fiber is what gives stools bulk and provides a laxative effect increasing and/or regulating bowel habits. Insoluble fibers are found in products such as whole-wheat flour and veggies (cellulose), whole grains (hemicellulose), and fruits with edible seeds (lignin) (Digate Muth, 2013).

Both types of fiber are necessary for health and perform critically important physiological functions.

High-Viscosity Fiber

Apples
Apples

Low-Viscosity Fiber

Whole Grains
Whole Grains

"High in Fiber" vs. "A Good Source Of" - Decoding Terminology

To determine if a food or food product is a quality source of fiber, we must examine the nutrition label and ingredients of that product. Labels often say "high in X" or "a good source of X". There is a difference.

A product that is "high in" a certain nutrient or substance contains 20% or more of the daily value (as listed on the label). A product that is "a good source" of a substance contains 10-19% of the daily value (as listed on the label) (FDA, 2015).

Examples of High Quality Fiber Sources

Grains, Nuts, Legumes
Fruits
Veggies
Whole grains/Whole wheat
Apples w/ skin
Leafy greens
Quinoa
Bananas
Squash
Beans
Strawberries
Sweet potatoes
Nuts & Seeds
Raspberries
Carrots
Flaxseed meal
Mango
Broccoli
These foods are either high in fiber or a good source of fiber. All are excellent options. This list is meant to provide examples and not represent an exhaustive or all-inclusive list.

Quality vs. Quantity

Making Fiber Friendly for Kiddos

It is one thing to make changes to personal food intake, but it is an entirely different endeavor to modify diets for all members of a family. Kids can be fickle in their food choices (so can adults) and my tiny tot is no exception! As her palate evolved so too did my culinary skills. I had to find creatively crafty ways to "sneak" fruits and veggies into some of her favorite foods. The biggest lesson learned for me as a mom - make food FUN and involve kiddos in the prep (using age appropriate tasks, of course)! Below are some tricks I've tried with my little one that have proven successful - on most days.

  • Replace half all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour in baked goods. I make homemade muffins and I find the whole wheat pastry flour to be lighter than whole wheat flour.
  • Add ground flaxseed meal to oats (which are a quality source of fiber by themselves) or other whole-grain cereal. It will not affect the taste. Likewise, add flaxseed meal to pancakes or baked goods.
  • Choose whole fruits over other processed versions (whole apples with natural peanut butter vs. applesauce or juice) and have them readily available in the house and during meal times.
  • Try making fun and colorful designs with sliced fruit. Banana slices topped with peanut butter and topped off with a slice of strawberry is a winner in my house! Blueberries and raspberries work well to make smiley faces on pancakes. This is also a great opportunity to teach kiddos about creative expression through culinary art.
  • Use spaghetti squash or spiraled zucchini as "noodles" in traditional pasta dishes. An alternative - use whole wheat and whole grain pasta in place of white flour based products.
  • Use beans in recipes - either in their pureed form or on top of salads or mixed with rice. Garbanzo and white kidney beans are great for making bean dips and for use in baking.
  • Serve raw veggies with a tasty dip such as homemade hummus or guacamole.
  • Shred zucchini in fine strands and bake in breads (using whole-wheat or bean-based flours). Likewise, you can substitute flaxseed for eggs and applesauce (no sugar added) for some of the fat/oil.

Above anything else, make food enjoyable by making up silly names for different recipes and snacks or display food in creative ways to allow the littles to "taste first with their eyes". If a food sounds fun and looks fun, it will have greater "curb appeal" with the littlest members of the family.

Key Points

  • A diet high in fiber is beneficial to overall health and well-being.
  • Fiber creates feelings of satiety and promotes healthy digestion processes.
  • Many foods that are quality sources of fiber are naturally delicious and readily available.
  • A lack of fiber leads to serious health consequences for individuals of all ages.,

Most vegetables are not just excellent sources of fiber, but contain necessary vitamins and minerals that function to support overall health.
Most vegetables are not just excellent sources of fiber, but contain necessary vitamins and minerals that function to support overall health.

Tying it all Together

Fiber is necessary for balanced health. A diet high in fiber will help lower cholesterol, control blood sugar and insulin responses, and potentially ward off diseases such as cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Lucky for us humans, fiber comes in different forms and is a component of many delicious foods and those sources that are less appealing to finicky eaters can easily be hidden as ingredients in common and more favored foods. Think of this approach as 'clandestine cooking".

We've all heard the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"; clearly there is truth to that statement.

Here's to your continued health. Eat well. Be Well. Live Well. Stay Well. Enjoy!

© 2016 Erin Nitschke

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