November 2020

Fiber: Are You Getting Your Fill?

Near the bottom of a food’s Nutrition Facts label, under “Total Carbohydrate,” is a nutrient you’re probably neglecting: dietary fiber.

Fiber—found in plant foods like oats, legumes, and citrus—has a reputation for keeping you regular. But its benefits go beyond digestion to include heart health, weight control, and reduced diabetes risk.

The average woman needs 25 grams of fiber per day and the average man requires 38 grams. However, surveys show only about 5% of Americans achieve this target, with most averaging closer to 15 grams daily.

Fiber, defined

Fiber is made of sugar molecules bound together in a way that gives them unique health benefits. It comes in two types:

  1. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a thick gel-like substance in your stomach. There, it slows the rate at which your body absorbs carbohydrates, fat, and cholesterol. This can help lower your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels drop and keep your blood sugar stable.

  2. Insoluble fiber passes through your gastrointestinal tract intact, without breaking down. As it does, it moves other food and waste through your system more efficiently.

Both fiber types make you feel fuller longer, which can limit overeating and weight gain. Over the long term, getting enough fiber can reduce your risk for many health issues, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Some cancers, including breast and lung cancer

It can also help treat certain issues, such as:

  • Constipation

  • Diverticulitis

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Gauge your intake

Getting your fiber from nutritious food sources—such as vegetables, fruits, beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and whole grains—is best. However, fiber supplements can fill the gap if you’re falling short.

You can take fiber supplements in several different ways, including:

  • A powder made of a plant called psyllium, which you can mix with water and drink

  • Fortified foods and beverages, which include soluble fibers like inulin, polydextrose, or maltodextrin

  • Capsules you can swallow

  • Wheat bran, which you can add to foods like applesauce or meat loaf

Most fiber supplements have only minor side effects, including gas and cramps. However, some could interfere with other treatments—for instance, decreasing your blood glucose when you’re already on diabetes medicine. Your healthcare provider can ensure you’re taking any supplements safely.

Whether it’s from food or supplements, increase your fiber intake gradually to give your body time to adjust. This helps prevent gas, cramps, and bloating. And be sure to drink more fluids, which help you better digest fiber. Many people take fiber for constipation—but if you consume more without enough water, you risk making the problem worse.




Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Ray Turley, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2020
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