Fiber might not seem like the sexiest of topics, but it’s one worth talking about nonetheless. The nutrient is truly a key pillar of a healthy diet, helping us feel more satiated after a meal, keeping us regular in the bathroom, supporting a healthy weight and weight loss, and even protecting us against diseases.
Yet, despite the fact that most of us know that it’s an important component of our diets, a whopping 90 percent of Americans don’t consume the recommended daily amount (which is between 28 and 34 grams, depending on your age and sex). In fact, the average daily intake is less than half the recommended amount.
When we consistently fall short on fiber, we pay the price! Though we might overlook some of the short-term effects, it’s hard to ignore the long-term impacts of missing out on fiber, which include everything from imbalanced gut microflora and poor metabolic health to increased risk of heart disease and more.
Here’s what you need to know about why fiber is so important, how to tell when you’re not eating enough, and how to up your intake.
The Fiber Basics
In case you need a refresher, dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate found in plant foods that our body cannot digest. The small intestine can’t break fiber down into sugar molecules (a.k.a. usable energy) as it does with starches and sugars, meaning that fiber doesn’t provide the body with energy but instead helps to regulate already-circulating sugar, slow digestion, and keep energy levels more stable.
You’ve probably heard that there are two different types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. While each type plays a different role in the body, both are pivotal to your health.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and is found in foods including oats, chia seeds, beans, lentils, apples, citrus, and blueberries. When you eat these foods, the soluble fiber pulls water into the stomach creating a thick, gelatinous substance that slows down the entire digestive process. This means that carbohydrates do not enter the bloodstream as quickly, helping prevent undesirable blood sugar spikes. Soluble fiber also attaches to LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and excretes it from the body.
Insoluble fiber, meanwhile, does not dissolve in water. It’s found in whole-wheat products, such as wheat bran, quinoa, brown rice, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and fruits with edible skin. Because it’s not broken down or digested at all, insoluble fiber helps food move through your digestive system, promoting regularity. It can also help enhance your feeling of fullness after a meal, helping regulate overall caloric intake.
3 Signs you’re not eating enough fiber
Though many people overlook some of the immediate indicators that they’re not eating enough fiber, catching them quickly can help ward off those bigger and badder long-term consequences. Whether you think you eat a decent amount of fiber or haven’t even considered your consumption, look out for these three telltale signs that you’re missing the mark.
1. You’re Irregular or Constipated
It’s not glamorous to talk about going number two, but your poop is an important indicator of your health so we’ve got to go there! If you don’t go to the bathroom daily, chances are you could benefit from upping your fiber intake. Other telltale signs you’re not getting enough fiber? Harder, pebble-like poops and more discomfort and strain on the toilet. Because fiber both pulls in water and moves food through your system, it helps speed up the passage of fecal matter through—and out of—your body by making it both softer and bulkier.
2. You feel hungry all the time
The more whole food sources of fiber you incorporate into a meal, the slower the rate at which your body digests your food and the more satisfied you feel for longer after polishing it off. Yes, hunger is a complex phenomenon that is informed by many cues in your body—but one of those cues is the digestive organs’ sense of how much material is left to digest and how quickly that food is absorbed and turned into energy. Because fiber cannot be broken down into usable energy, your stomach and small intestines maintain the sensation of fullness for longer, which helps delay hunger cues from popping back up.
3. Your energy is up and down (or mostly down)
Whether you’re constantly riding the energy rollercoaster or just feel tired and sluggish often, consider it another signal that you need more fiber in your life. Remember, fiber helps slow the process of digestion and regulates the rate at which your body processes and uses energy. So, when you have too little fiber, your body rapidly uses the energy that you consume, giving you quick spikes of energy. This means that you run out of that energy more quickly and your blood sugar levels drop. This drop plays an important role in regulating how you experience your energy levels, often leaving you feeling wiped. When you eat more fiber, you stabilize this process, allowing your body to process and use energy more steadily. This means slower increases of energy levels, longer-lasting energy, and less severe drops in energy levels.
How to add more fiber into your diet
Good news: Many foods are great sources of fiber. With just a little more awareness and planning, you can get your fiber intake into the strike zone and enjoy the amazing health benefits that follow.
When adding more fiber into your diet, start slow and spread it throughout the day. Too much fiber in one meal can cause abdominal cramping, gas, and bloating. And while whole foods are the best places to start, you can also consider adding a fiber supplement to help you hit your target.
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You don’t have to meticulously track grams of fiber but having a general sense of how much you’re eating each day will help keep you on track. This chart lists the fiber content of a wide variety of different foods, and you’ll want to check out the nutrition labels on packaged foods, opting for eats that contain at least three grams of fiber per serving.
Some great high-fiber foods to add to your grocery list:
- Chia seeds
- Ground flaxseed
- Apples (with skin)
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Raw nuts
- Red lentil or chickpea pasta
- Fortified breads and cereals
- Sprouted whole-wheat breads and tortillas
The Bottom Line
There are many types of dietary fiber that come from a wide variety of foods, so adopting a more whole foods-based diet can help you hit that recommended daily amount more easily. In addition to supporting gut health, fiber has also been shown to lower the risk of developing various conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, so don’t delay getting your fill!