Considering many of us associate it with going to the bathroom, fiber might not exactly be the sexiest nutrient to talk about. It is, nonetheless, pretty darn important. In fact, research shows that getting enough of it means a reduced risk of gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even hypertension.
In case you still need convincing to get more fiber-filled foods onto your plate, here’s everything to know about the many crucial roles fiber plays and the health benefits of a high-fiber diet.
What is fiber—and what does it do in our body?
“Soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, is found in foods such as apples, carrots, peas, beans, lentils, and oat bran,” explains Christen Cupples Cooper, Ed.D., R.D.N., founding director of Pace University’s Nutrition and Dietetics Program.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve in water and instead actually draws water into the intestines to help soften stool and move it out of the body, Cooper notes. Insoluble fibers are commonly found in foods such as whole grains, cucumbers, peppers, whole bran, nuts, berries, and the skins of many fruits and vegetables.
In addition to helping our bodies break down and pass the food we eat, fiber feeds our gut bacteria, keeping those critters healthy and reproducing, adds Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant.
How much fiber do we need?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, women should strive for about 25 grams of fiber per day while men should get about 38 grams. Unfortunately, as many as 95 percent of U.S. adults and children do not meet these recommended amounts, per a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “What We Eat in America” survey.
Despite our widespread shortcomings in the roughage department, pretty much all of us stand to benefit from a high-fiber diet that meets these parameters, Cooper says. (The only exceptions: those healing from a gastrointestinal tract injury or illness and some people with diverticular disease.) “Many Americans are used to eating mostly processed foods and thus focusing on fiber seems daunting,” she says. “If we can focus on eating real food as frequently as possible we’ll have enough fiber—fruits, veggies and whole grains, beans, and legumes.”
The Benefits Of A High-Fiber Diet
What do you stand to gain from loading up on fiber? A lot. Here’s the lowdown on the five biggest benefits of a diet rich in fiber.
1. More Regular Digestion
Constipation is not only uncomfortable but it could be indicative of a more serious condition, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, according to David Clarke, M.D., clinical assistant professor of Gastroenterology Emeritus at Oregon Health & Science University. If you’re not going to the bathroom at least three times a week, consider it cause for concern, he notes.
Studies, including one published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, have shown that the more fiber you eat, the more frequently you’re likely to go to the bathroom, so load up to stay regular!
2. Helps regulate blood sugar
Soluble fiber, in particular, helps slow sugar absorption, thereby preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar, explains nutritionist Lisa Richards, C.N.C., author of The Candida Diet.
This effect is especially helpful when you consume high-carbohydrate meals. “Meals that are high in carbs but also high in fiber digest slower and can help regulate blood sugar levels,” says Avena.
In helping to manage blood sugar, fiber can go a long way in reducing the risk for both prediabetes and diabetes, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, research—including one study published in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine—shows that consuming adequate fiber can help ward off type 2 diabetes.
3. Good News For Your Cholesterol
High cholesterol is a common health issue—and one of the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease, per the CDC. Luckily, fiber helps remove excess cholesterol from the intestines, thereby allowing your body to absorb less into the bloodstream, explains Avena. “This in turn lowers overall cholesterol levels and allows the body to recover from previous low-fiber diet mishaps,” she adds.
FYI: It’s soluble fiber, in particular, that offers this perk. “Soluble fiber binds to excess cholesterol that is found in the small intestine so that it can be excreted,” Avena explains.
4. Supports Weight Loss
Looking to lose weight? A diet high in fiber may help you achieve your goals. “Fiber-rich foods can boost metabolism and weight loss by slowing digestion and preventing overeating,” says Richards. “Even though fiber cannot be digested by the human body, the body attempts to do so anyway, burning calories in the process.”
Also, by stabilizing blood sugar, ample fiber can help ward off cravings and overeating, she adds.
5. Promotes healthy gut bacteria
Yet another impressive benefit of a high-fiber diet? “Our gut microbiota feed on fiber,” Avena says. “A high-fiber diet can restore a worn-down gut microbiome and allow new beneficial bacteria to bloom.” Since maintaining a healthy gut has been linked to improved mental and physical health, this means that by supporting your good gut bugs, high-fiber eating supports your wellbeing in profound ways.