You probably already know that your body needs fiber, a carbohydrate that helps your digestive system function at optimal levels and can lower your risk of a myriad of chronic diseases. However, few people understand the different types of fiber, or know whether they should take fiber supplements. Consider this your fiber primer.
The two kinds of fiber
First thing’s first: There are two main kinds of fiber—and they do different things.
Insoluble fiber (whole wheat flour, wheat bran, cauliflower) helps decrease constipation and move digested food through the digestive tract; soluble fiber (oats, apples, citrus fruits) forms into a gel-like structure in the gut and helps to increase the good gut bacteria. “We need both for our best health, but also to help our bodies reap the benefits of the nutrition that we are feeding it,” explains functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P.
While there are no guidelines for how much soluble versus insoluble fiber one should consume in a day, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends aiming for 25 grams of total fiber daily for women and 38 grams of fiber daily for men.
Benefits of fiber
Because fiber doesn’t actually get broken down in your body, it passes through your digestive tract mainly intact, helping to normalize bowel movements by making your stool softer and adding some bulk so it passes easier, explains Rodgers. If you tend to experience constipation, adding fiber to your diet can help.
blood sugar balance
Consuming enough fiber also helps with blood sugar balance—an issue that’s involved in diabetes, endocrine disorders, and even anxiety. “Fiber can help to slow the absorption of sugars from the foods we eat, thereby helping to prevent sugar spikes,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N.
healthy cholesterol levels
Similarly, soluble fiber can help reduce cholesterol levels. “It binds with bile acids and bile salts in the small intestine and prevents the colon from reabsorbing them later on,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “These bile acids and bile salts are made from cholesterol, so if they can’t be recycled, the body must use more of its own cholesterol to make more, thereby lowering cholesterol levels.”
colon and gut health
Additionally, fiber comes in handy to promote overall colon health. “[It] provides roughage that acts like a scrub brush on the intestines, cleaning and trapping toxins as it moves through the digestive system,” explains Blakely. “It also provides food for the good bacteria in the gut, helping to promote overall gut health.”
Unfortunately, an estimated 95 percent of Americans don’t get their fair share of fiber, according to research published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. This is mainly due to a high consumption of low-fiber processed and fast foods, according to Blakely. “Many people also do not meet the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables (minimum 5 daily, ideally 6-12), which would help people get more fiber,” she says.
To help you reach your fiber needs, fiber supplements are readily available in different forms.
Who can benefit from taking a fiber supplement?
There are plenty of ways to incorporate fiber into your diet, but access to fiber-rich foods may be challenging for certain people, says Rodgers. “Fresh food availability, economic status, environment, nutrition, and diet challenges can all impact one’s accessibility to fiber,” she says. “Using a fiber supplement can help to bridge the gap in one’s nutrition profile.”
The best fiber supplements
Fiber supplements are not one-size-fits all. In fact, there are several kinds on the market—each with their own unique composition and benefits. Here are some of the more common fiber supplements and what you should know about each.
Soluble and Insoluble Fiber Blends
Both soluble and insoluble fiber are key for good health, so it’s convenient to have a supplement that contains a combination. “Soluble fibers are great for those looking to support healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels, since they are better at absorbing water and fats and slowing sugar absorption, while insoluble fibers are good for keeping things moving and cleaning the colon,” explains Blakely.
Psyllium husks are the most common of the soluble and insoluble blends. This form of fiber has been shown to help alleviate constipation. It comes from the outer layer of the psyllium plant’s seed, explains Rodgers. “Psyllium husks are made up of both insoluble and soluble fibers, but are mostly soluble fiber. This means they can help repopulate the gut while also helping to regulate bowel movements to better clear the digestive system,” she says. “This type of fiber is also beneficial for regulating blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of glucose in the bloodstream.”
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Psyllium husks are also a popular fiber supplement due to how easy it is to consume; the powder mixes with most liquids and is easy to transport, notes The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N.
You may be familiar with probiotics—the “good” bacteria that keeps your gut healthy—but how much do you know about prebiotics? As it turns out, they’re super-important. In fact, this insoluble plant-based fiber serves as the nutrition for the probiotics through a fermentation process, explains Rodgers. “Prebiotics are simply an insoluble plant-based fiber that does not get broken down. Rather, they sit in the lower intestines to help increase the good bacteria microbiome population,” she says.
While you can get your fair share of prebiotic fiber from plenty of foods, including chicory root, dandelion greens, and garlic, you can also consume it in supplement form. Michels suggests one tablespoon of the powdered form daily.