This Healthy Diet Tip Isn’t Just for Older People
Judging by the ads shown on daytime TV (the line between procrastination and research can get a little blurry), dietary fiber is only of interest to the geriatric set—or those who are at least old enough to remember Phil Hartman’s SNL sketch about Colon Blow cereal, with “30,000 times the fiber as regular oat-bran cereals.”
But we should all be more mindful. The theory that a high-fiber diet is an extremely healthful one has been around since the 1970s, and data from subsequent research continue to pile up, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. “In 2002, the Institute of Medicine set recommendations for daily fiber intake. Up to age 50, men should eat 38 grams of fiber per day. After age 50, they should aim for 30 grams daily. The corresponding amounts for women are 25 and 21 grams,” reads a Harvard Heart Letter from May 2014. “But most Americans fall woefully short of these goals, consuming only about 16 grams of fiber per day on average.”
“I know it’s good for your digestion, but to tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure what fiber actually is,” a friend admitted. “Is it a carb?”
Got it in one. The term dietary fiber, coined in 1953, ] refers to plant carbohydrates that are resistant to digestion and absorption in humans. There are two types of dietary fiber: insoluble and soluble. Most whole foods contain both kinds but are typically richer in one than the other.
Insoluble fiber—which is found in whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and the skin of fruits—adds bulk to stools and helps food pass more easily through the stomach and intestines. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are high in soluble fiber, which attracts water and turns to gel during digestion, slowing down the process, thus preventing dramatic spikes in blood sugar.
Eating plenty of dietary fiber also provides a sense of fullness, so it can help you maintain a healthy weight. It will also lower your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and even some cancers. In a 2012 double-blind intervention study from the University of Illinois, researchers found that dietary fiber promotes a shift in the beneficial microbes that support a healthy gastrointestinal tract.
A notable long-term study of 44,000 women, published in February in the journal Pediatrics, concluded that the consumption of fiber-rich foods during the teenage years may significantly reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.
These days, lots of people drink many of their vegetables in the form of juices, but if you’re one of them, be aware that unless you are using a slow juicer—aka a masticating or single-gear juicer—you’re not getting the benefit of their fiber, which is in the skin and pulp. Opt for a smoothie instead, as puréeing vegetables in a blender leaves the fiber intact.
Increasing the fiber quotient in your meals is by no means a hardship—especially this time of year, when you can do much of your shopping at a farm stand. I feel silly saying this—if you’ve read this far, you probably have healthy eating habits—but if you aren’t accustomed to eating whole grains and fresh vegetables and fruit, then introduce them gradually.
Dreary bran cereals are so last century. A handful of berries ups the ante in fiber-rich oatmeal, and avocado toast, made with half an avocado and whole-grain toast, is a win-win as well. Make-ahead chia breakfast puddings or chia-berry shooters are another option; chia seeds, which have a hefty 5.5 grams of fiber per tablespoon, can be stirred into just about anything.
Here’s another chance to get an avocado toast fix. On hot days, though, all I really need in the middle of the day is hummus, whether made from the usual chickpeas or an herbed lima bean version that’s also delicious at cocktail time.
Craving a burger, you say? Try one made with black beans and corn or lentils and quinoa. Or make a hearty main-course salad that won’t leave anyone feeling deprived. When it comes to pasta night, I’ve been converted to Rustichella d’Abruzzo farro pasta, which is available at some supermarkets and online. As I noted in a 2013 column, an eight-ounce box of the spaghetti is almost seven bucks—but it has great flavor and texture. As far as sides go, stir snap peas, shelled garden peas, or (non-GMO) edamame into your favorite potato salad, and eat a rainbow of vegetables whether cooked or raw. As I write this, it’s hard to imagine I’ll ever eat my fill of local (and non-GMO) corn on the cob, but when and if I do, then I’ll be more than happy with creamless creamy corn with fresh chives.
A refreshing Mexican agua de chia will get you through the sultriest weather. Substitute whole-grain crackers or crudités for chips or pretzels. Don’t save the popcorn (it’s a whole grain, after all) just for movie night—and when in doubt, go nuts!