Common Whys and Hows of Food Fiber

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Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds hits shelves in March. Tweet him @harleypasternak.

If you thought fiber is used mainly to have smoother bowel movements then are only know the half truth. Dietary fiber does more than contribute to what we delicately refer to as ‘regularity’ — it also aids in digestion and plays a major role in preventing heart disease and colon cancer, among other conditions.

Fiber is also an effective tool for weight management: It fills us up quickly despite being very low in calories, slows digestion and keeps blood sugar on a level plane, which maintains normal insulin levels associated with a healthy weight. It also helps in maintaining ideal weight by reducing cravings.  When you eat fiber rich food you would feel full for a longer time and brain does not release the trigger to eat. Research shows that people who eat a low-fiber, high-fat diet are more likely to be overweight.

Fiber Basics

There are two types of fiber. Soluble fiber is digestible and dissolves in water. Found primarily in seeds, nuts, oat bran and fruit, it lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and prolongs digestion time, so you feel fuller longer.

Insoluble fiber cannot be digested and comes primarily from whole grains and vegetables. It scrubs the walls of the intestine and is satiating, that comfortable feeling of fullness that mutes hunger and curbs cravings for sweet and starchy foods.  Insoluble fibers are better equipped to enable smoother bowel movements.  Hence those who suffer from constipation usually prefer fiber supplements which contain primarily insoluble fiber.

Supplemental, Not a Substitute

It’s important to eat fiber-rich food, including lentils and other legumes, as well as nuts and the other foods cited above. But it’s not always easy to get the recommended 25 to 30 grams a day from diet alone. Most people get only 10 to 15 grams of fiber a day which is way less than the recommended quantity.  This also means that most people cannot meet the recommended ratio of 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories consumed.

That’s where supplements come in. These so-called “functional” fibers are synthesized from a number of sources. Others have simply been ground from a high-fiber plant source. Regardless, the amount of fiber per serving varies, so check the label for specifics.

To help you choose, I’ve listed the most common types of fiber, suggestions of how to use them and a few of the most common brands in each category. Other fiber sources you may come across include guar gum, pectin, chitosan, beta glucans, fructooligosaccharides, calcium polycarbophil and acacia or hemp.

Flaxseed meal. Insoluble ground flaxseeds. Use in baked goods, smoothies or yogurt; sprinkle on salads and vegetables. My favorite brands are Bob’s Red Mill, Arrowhead Mills and Spectrum Essentials.

Psyllium fiber. Soluble/insoluble made of ground husks from the herb bush Plantago ovata. Doesn’t dissolve completely in fluid and forms a gel to remove waste and cholesterol. Also comes in pill form. Note: Some products contain sugar or artificial sweeteners. I recommend Metamucil, Konsyl, Yerba Prima and Source Naturals.

Inulin. Soluble chicory root. A prebiotic, meaning it feeds the probiotics (“good” bacteria) in your gut. Check out Fiber Choice gummies, which contain sugar, pectin, citric acid, vegetable oil and carnauba wax.

Methylcellulose. Soluble chemical compound derived from indigestible plant fibers. Dissolves completely in liquid and doesn’t ferment in the gut. Calories vary depending upon sugar or other sweeteners used in various products (try Citrucel).

Wheat dextrin. Soluble matter made from wheat (though it’s gluten free). Comes in chewable tablets, caplets and powders. Dissolves completely in liquid, without thickening or adding a gritty texture. Try Benefiber.

Polydextrose. Soluble, synthesized from dextrose, sorbitol (a sugar alcohol) and citric acid. VitaFusion Fiber Well gummies (10 calories each) contain xylitol, gelatin, malic acid, sucralose and beeswax.

More Is Not Better

There’s no indication that using fiber supplements regularly is dangerous, however they can result in gas and a bloated tummy, at least initially. Eating too much insoluble fiber in the absence of soluble fiber can be constipating. Start off with a small amount to avoid such problems and be sure to drink at least a cup of liquid with each dose — and at least eight glasses a day overall.

Keep in Mind

If you have any intestinal issues, discuss with your healthcare provider before using a fiber supplement — they can also interfere with the absorption of certain medications. And because supplemental fiber can also lower your blood sugar levels, you may need to adjust diabetes medications, including insulin, so discuss with your doctor.  If you are thinking about taking psyllium or metamucil here are some precautions which you should follow.

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