Fiber. It sounds innocuous, but the word is enough to send marketing companies into a swoon and cause a collective headache among such prestigous groups as the American Dietetic Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the British Nutrition Foundation, which are all trying to agree on one definition, as well as specific health benefits, of fiber.
Most scientists, doctors and nutrition experts emphasize that fiber is crucial to a healthy diet. Scientific tiffs aside, they agree—generally—on the amount of fiber and—again, generally—on the type everybody should get. And they also agree that getting the right amount of the right type is not always easy to do.
These days fiber isn't just those weird squiggly things in bran cereal or that sweet, orange grainy-gummy stuff your grandfather mixed into a glass of water and gulped down every morning. Fiber has come back to its roots—and seeds and husks and fruit skins.
Fiber's health benefits
"One of the things I talk about the most is not only promoting health, but prevention," says naturopathic doctor Holly Lucille, whose private practice Healing from Within Healthcare is based in Los Angeles. "Fiber reduces the risk for irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, chronic diseases, diabetes, breast cancer and colon cancer. It lowers cholesterol. It lowers blood sugar. It promotes cardiovascular health. I'm pretty much in love with the stuff."
In addition, the American Dietetic Association says a "fiber-rich meal is processed more slowly, which promotes earlier satiety, and is frequently less calorically dense and lower in fat and added sugars. All of these characteristics are features of a dietary pattern to treat and prevent obesity."
The ADA, Lucille and organizations such as the BAF, the NAS and the Institute of Medicine recommend that healthy adults get between 18 and 35 grams a day of fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole and high-fiber grains and legumes.
But that's not always easy to do. The Harvard School of Public Health says the average American's daily intake of dietary fiber is only 12 to 15 grams. So what's a health-conscious person to do?
Fiber supplements could help.
"Even with a fiber-rich diet, a supplement may be needed to bring fiber intakes into a range adequate to prevent constipation," according to the ADA.
"My recommendation for anything when it comes to supplements is that you get what you can from diet first," Lucille says. "But if you have high cholesterol, diabetes or you're constipated, or you don't have control of your lifestyle sometimes, then supplement your diet."
With dozens of fiber products on the market, what should you look for—what ingredients, what combinations?
Most importantly, Lucille says, is "look for what you don't want." First on her list: "It should be clay-free." Though some fiber supplements include clay bentonite, and it's sometimes recommended, Holly argues bentonite is high in heavy metals, a substance you should stay away from. Also, avoid supplements that include glucose, artificial colors and flavors, and fillers. Some experts also recommend that the supplement be gluten-free. "You want to look at the manufacturing process, too," Lucille says.
A good supplement should include a ratio of 75 percent soluble to 25 percent insoluble fiber, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Cancer Project and many other groups. It's tough to get the right combination of soluble and insoluble fiber acting together. But if you don't get enough of either type, you lose out on all the health benefits, and you could get constipated. Too much can also cause constipation as well as gas and bloating.
How it works
Insoluble fiber is not broken down by digestive enzymes and is not absorbed into the bloodstream, according to a Center for Science in the Public Interest Nutrition Action Healthletter. It moves bulk through the intestines, feeds the good bacteria and maintains a healthy pH, which can help prevent colon cancer. "It binds to toxins and helps move waste through the intestines," says Lucille, thus promoting regular bowel movements. Sources of insoluble fiber are nuts, fruit and vegetable skins, leafy green vegetables and corn bran.
Soluble fiber forms a gel when mixed with digestive juices. It binds to cholesterol, especially fatty acids, as well as other toxins and prolongs stomach emptying so sugar is released and absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream. Sources are oat and oat bran, peas, fruit pectins and guar gum.
Psyllium, which is a seed, and lignans, which are antioxidants and phytoestrogens found in plants such as flaxseed, have a rich blend of both soluble and insoluble fiber, Lucille says.
Figuring out fiber intake
"You have to be careful," Lucille warns. "You have to take these supplements with enough water. If you don't, you get gas or bloating or you can become constipated." The ADA also cautions that "appropriate kinds and amounts of dietary fiber for the critically ill and the very old have not been clearly delineated."
But for most people, a diet rich in the right kind of fiber, aided by a supplement if necessary, aids digestive health. And, as Lucille says, "Digestive health is the new black."
Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 30,32