Harvard on the Food Value of Fiber

Fiber, protein and carbohydrates are the three-legged nutritional stool upon which our lives depend. Harvard has issued a report that includes a super write-up on the value of fiber in our daily diet.

Harvard Medical School offers special reports on over 50 health topics. Visit their website to find reports of interest to you and your family.

Fiber: The workhorse
Fiber is a form of indigestible carbohydrate found mainly in plant foods. Over the years, fiber has been hailed as a potential weapon against colon cancer, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Fiber’s vaunted health benefits were diminished slightly by findings that it doesn’t prevent colon polyps (precursors of colon cancer). But fiber slightly reduces LDL cholesterol, improves insulin resistance, and is linked to a lower rate of heart disease. It is considered one of the most important health attributes of foods.

Fiber slows the digestion of foods and therefore lowers their glycemic load, which likely helps to prevent diabetes. By increasing the bulk of foods and creating a feeling of fullness, fiber may also help you avoid overeating and becoming overweight. There is also some evidence that fiber might reduce the risk for duodenal ulcers, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer.

Studies such as the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow- up Study have found that people with the lowest rates of heart disease and heart attack have the highest intakes of fiber. These studies formed the basis for the DRIs (Daily Recommended Intake) for fiber.

The DRI for fiber is 38 grams for men up to age 50 and 25 grams for women in this age group. For pregnant women, the DRI is 28 grams, and for breast-feeding women, 29 grams. DRIs are lower for people over age 50: 30 grams for men, 21 grams for women. That’s because older people tend to eat less food. On average, Americans eat only about 15 grams of fiber a day.

One of the main sources of fiber is cellulose, which comes from plants’ tough cell walls. Cellulose can occur naturally in the foods you eat, or manufacturers can add it to foods in a powdered form during manufacturing. Pectin, another common fiber source, is a common ingredient in fruits. Manufacturers often add pectins to foods to make them jell. Fiber can also take the form of supplements that you can buy over the counter. These fiber sources come in pill and powder forms and provide the same benefits as fiber in foods. Take them with plenty of water to get the full benefit.

You can probably identify some high-fiber foods, such as bran cereals and whole-grain bread. But not all foods billed as “high-fiber” really have much fiber; read the labels on packaged foods to see the number of grams of fiber they contain. You can be sure of getting fiber if you eat fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, bran, or oats each day. Here are some ways to make sure that your diet meets the DRI for fiber.

Eat whole-grain cereal for breakfast. Oats are an excellent choice, particularly steel-cut oats, which have the most fiber and the lowest glycemic index. If you prefer cold cereal, choose products that contain bran or list whole wheat, oats, barley, or another whole grain first on the list of ingredients.Choose whole-grain breads. As with cereals, true whole-grain breads list a whole grain first in the ingredients. Whole-grain sliced bread, pita bread, and rolls are equally good.

Skip the French fries and baked potatoes. Instead of white potatoes, eat sweet potatoes or yams. Instead of white rice, eat brown rice or another intact grain as a side dish. Good choices are buckwheat (kasha), bulgur, millet, quinoa, and barley.

Try whole-wheat pizza and pasta. Prepared pizzas made with whole-wheat crust are joining whole-wheat pastas on supermarket shelves. Whole-wheat pasta is a great choice, but if it doesn’t appeal to you, try mixing whole-wheat pasta with white pasta.

Cook with whole-wheat flour. You can make breads, muffins, and other home- baked goods healthier if you mix whole-wheat flour with white flour. Because whole-wheat flour is heavier than white flour, a straight substitution won’t work for every recipe. Try starting with a ratio of one part whole wheat to three parts white to see if you like the results. If you think the dish could stand a heavier, grainier texture, try increasing the share of whole-wheat flour. You may need to increase the amount of liquid at the same time. Many stores sell a multigrain pancake mix you can use for pancakes or waffles.


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