Eating more fiber is a well-known way to prevent constipation. But a high fiber diet has many more health benefits — including reducing heart and cancer risks.
You’ve no doubt seen promotions about how specific diets or foods can have near magical results on weight loss or help heal medical conditions. Unfortunately, the old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” often fits many of these claims.
However, science backs up a host of remarkable health benefits from eating foods rich in fiber. In fact, research shows a high fiber diet can have life-saving benefits and impact everything from your heart health and cancer prevention to increasing longevity.
Types of fiber and what they do
- There are two types of fiber, and both have somewhat different health benefits: Soluble fiber, found in many vegetables and grains — including oats, barley, nuts, beans, lentils, apples, and blueberries — dissolves in water and has a positive impact on blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, increasing stool bulk and helping move food through your digestive system to prevent constipation, Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Health explains. Insoluble fiber-rich foods include whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice, legumes, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
Fiber has multiple health benefits
Weight control. High fiber foods tend to fill you up and keep hunger at bay more than low fiber foods. In addition, high fiber foods take longer to eat and have fewer calories than the same amount of low fiber foods. That means you’ll likely eat less and have less difficulty achieving, and keeping, a healthy weight. In fact, researchers have found people on fiber rich diets typically eat 10 percent less than people who aren’t eating optimum amounts of fiber, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Preventing diverticular disease and lowering cancer risk. A high fiber does more than keep you “regular’ when it comes to bowel movements. It also lowers your risk of developing hemorrhoids and diverticular disease. Diverticulosis occurs when small, bulging pouches (diverticuli) form inside the lower part of the intestine, most often in the colon. A diet rich in fiber keep stools soft and reduces the risk of inflammation, which can help prevent diverticulitis, a painful infection of diverticuli. Multiple studies have linked a high fiber diet to a lower risk of colorectal cancer, too.
Protecting heart health. A high fiber diet can have lifesaving benefits by helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, a top killer of Americans. In fact, the NIH points out the strongest evidence of fiber's benefits is related to cardiovascular health. Several large studies found people who ate the most fiber regularly had a lower risk for heart disease. One reason may be that soluble fiber helps lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” type of cholesterol, which can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks and stroke. Research has also shown high fiber diets are associated with a reduction in blood pressure.
Why high fiber diets are crucial for people with diabetes — or at risk
More than 30 million Americans have diabetes and the vast majority, about 95 percent, have type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, another 84 million adults in the U.S. have prediabetes, meaning their blood glucose is higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. Along with keeping weight under control and getting regular exercise, fiber can lessen the risk for type 2 diabetes.
Gertraud Maskarinec, MD, PhD, an epidemiology professor at the University of Hawaii and a NIH-funded researcher, studied the diets of more than 75,000 people for about 14 years. The results showed those who had the highest regular consumption of fiber were significantly less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
And for people who already have type 2 diabetes, a diet rich in fiber can slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar from spiking. “With diabetes, it's good to keep glucose levels from peaking too much," Maskarinec explained.
More potentially life-saving high fiber benefits for people with diabetes
Medical nutrition therapy, in the form of adding an extra 20 to 25 percent of fiber to diets, combined with medical treatment may lower the odds heart disease will develop down the road in people with type 2 diabetes.
That’s the conclusion of research involving 200 people with type 2 diabetes and hypertension who were followed for six months while eating high fiber meals.
The study, presented at the American College of Cardiology Middle East Conference 2019, found the research subjects on a high fiber diet had significant improvements in several cardiovascular risk factors, including a nine percent reduction in serum cholesterol, 23 percent reduction in triglycerides (a type of fat linked to heart disease), a 15 percent reduction of systolic blood pressure, and a 28 percent reduction of fasting blood sugar levels.
The findings show a diet high in fiber can likely help people with diabetes and high blood pressure prevent future cardiovascular disease, concluded Rohit Kapoor, MD, medical director of Care Well Heart and Super Specialty Hospital in Amritsar, India, who headed the research.
Bottom line? Eat a high fiber diet to protect your health
A study, published in BMC Medicine, followed almost 370,000 people for 14 years. The results suggest increasing your dietary fiber intake, especially cereal fiber, may result in a longer life. More fiber is associated with a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and all cancers.
If you are wondering if you are getting enough fiber for optimum health, the answer is probably not.
Unfortunately, American adults typically consume only about 14 grams of fiber each day, according to the NIH. In contrast, men should consume about 38 grams of fiber daily, while women should aim for 25 grams.
To check your fiber intake, read labels and remember that fruits, veggies, and whole grains are naturally loaded with fiber.
If you are ready to add more fiber to your life, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) advises foregoing dietary fiber supplements and, instead, starting to add fiber slowly to meals (adding fiber quickly can result in gas pains).
Tips from the NIA on adding fiber
- Add cooked dry beans, peas, and lentils to recipes.
- Leave skins on your fruit and vegetables when possible (but wash them before eating).
- Choose whole fruit over fruit juice.
- Eat whole grain breads and cereals.
December 02, 2019