Fiber is highly important to diet

February 16, 2005|by Lynn Little

Grandma called it roughage; children sometimes liken it to cardboard. Fiber is, however, an important component in the diet. It has virtually no calories, yet it provides energy for "good" intestinal bacteria to produce lactic acid that discourages disease-causing bacteria and yeast from forming in the intestinal tract.

There are two kinds of fiber. One is insoluble fiber, which is supplied by foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, traps and holds water. By doing so, it softens and adds bulk to body waste and speeds elimination. Insoluble fiber lessens the time disease-causing bacteria linger in the digestive system.

Soluble fiber, which is found in foods such as oatmeal, fruit, peas and beans, slows the absorption of sugar from the intestine into the blood. Soluble fiber has been credited with reducing cholesterol levels, including LDL, which is known as the "bad" cholesterol. Soluble fiber traps fat and cholesterol in the intestines and speeds elimination before they can contribute to coronary heart disease. It also can help diabetics reduce their need for insulin.


Eating a fiber-rich diet is recommended for health. Adults need 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day. To calculate the recommended amounts for children, add five to their age. For example, a 5-year-old child should eat 10 grams of fiber per day.

A person can eat too much fiber, though. Children who fill up on high-fiber foods might skip foods that provide nutrients and calories that are needed for growth. Their stomachs are small - eating too many fiber-rich foods might fill them up too soon. Eating too much fiber also can slow the absorption of important vitamins and minerals, particularly zinc, which contributes to a healthy immune system; iron, which is needed for blood to carry oxygen to cells; and calcium, which is important to building bones and maintaining the skeleton. People who are age 65 and older, or those who might have had gastrointestinal surgery, are encouraged to consult with their physicians about their diet.

Can fiber contribute to weight loss? Foods high in fiber create a full feeling and might prompt people to eat less because they don't feel hungry.

Is soluble fiber preferable to insoluble fiber or vice versa? Fiber-rich foods usually contain both kinds of fiber.

Can you take a fiber pill instead of eating fiber-rich foods? Powdered fiber pills or products are sold as supplements. They can be helpful in managing constipation, but cannot replace essential vitamins and minerals found in fiber-rich foods.

To increase fiber in the diet, here are some tips:

· Increase fiber gradually - it will take time for the digestive system to adjust.

· Drink plenty of fluids - at least eight glasses of water per day are recommended. Water helps fiber soften and bulk up body waste, which promotes regularity. Without essential fluids, fiber might, however, stall and contribute to constipation.

· Learn to recognize foods that are high in fiber. For example, a medium apple with the skin has 3 grams of fiber; without the skin, a medium apple offers 2.4 grams of fiber; a 1/2 cup serving of applesauce provides 1.8 grams of fiber; and a 3/4 cup serving of apple juice provides 0.8 grams of fiber.

Fruits, vegetables and legumes, such as peas and beans, are good examples of fiber-rich foods. So are whole-grain breads and cereals.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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