It’s no secret that fiber is an important staple for every healthy diet. Though it’s most widely known as a digestive aid, its beneficial properties span much farther, including weight management, blood sugar regulation, and decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. Yet surprisingly, most of the population still does not consume enough fiber. Although the American Heart Association recommends 38 g/day for men, and 25 g/day for women, recent data shows that around 90% of the population’s fiber intake falls around 15 g/day - roughly half of the recommended amount (ucsfhealth.org)!
As a result, many turn to fiber supplements as an easier way to increase their daily fiber intake. Though if you’re hoping to obtain all of the benefits that fiber has to offer, experts recommend whole foods over supplements every single time. This is because fiber-rich foods offer an array of micronutrients and compounds, which also benefit our health, that supplements alone do not possess. Moreover, the acts of heating and processing of fiber for supplemental use usually remove their most vital health functions. According to McRorie (2015), “of the fiber supplements on the market today, only a minority possess the physical characteristics that underlie the mechanisms driving clinically meaningful health benefits.”
In order to better understand the comparison between whole foods vs. supplements, it’s important to know the basic functions of fiber. Fiber is divided into two different types: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber attracts water, and forms a gel, which slows digestion. This viscosity is what helps lower cholesterol levels and slow the release of sugars in the body. Insoluble fiber is what helps stomach contents move through the digestive system, by adding bulk and weight to increase satiety and form stools (ucsfhealth.org). Simply put, fiber is nature’s “scrub brush,” as it helps remove waste from the body.
However, when it comes to fiber supplements, processing may rob the fiber of these most central functions in the human bodies described above. One example is a clinical study in which subjects were randomly assigned to consume either wheat fiber cereal, or 1 of 3 fiber supplements, each of which underwent various degrees of processing; those that were more processed, had lower levels of viscosity (McRorie, 2015). According to McRorie, “the results showed that cholesterol lowering was highly correlated with level of viscosity of the [supplement].” Therefore, the more processed the supplement, the less effective it is in terms of lowering cholesterol levels.
The silver lining, however, is that incorporating more fiber into your daily intake through whole foods is much more simple than it sounds.
When it comes to fiber, whole grain products pack a major punch in just a single serving.
Replace white rice with brown rice
Make your sandwiches with whole wheat bread
Include oatmeal in your breakfast
Bake with whole wheat flour
Mix it up! If you find the transition to whole grain products difficult, start by simply incorporating them into your favorite foods. Mix together some white and brown rice, add some bran cereal into your favorite breakfast cereals, and slowly move toward whole grains altogether.
Fruits and Vegetables
Top your favorite cereals or oatmeal with fresh or dried fruits
Have a serving of fruit or vegetables as a snack
Opt for fresh fruit over juice (juice usually does not contain fiber)
Add vegetables to salads or pastas
Legumes and beans
Replace a serving of meat with legumes or beans a few times a week
Use as burger patties, or incorporate into soups and salads
Nuts and seeds
Flax or chia seeds hold around 4 g of fiber per tablespoon, and are generally flavorless, making them easy to incorporate into most foods
A handful of mixed nuts or trail mix makes an easy and filling snack
There are countless other foods in each of these groups that are rich in fiber, making it easy to meet the daily recommendation without getting bored with your meals. Like any healthy diet, the key is variety. Simply adding a handful of these foods to each meal can make all the difference, in order to better your health. And most importantly, remember to drink plenty of water when increasing fiber intake. Keep your plates colorful, and your heart and digestive tract will thank you!