The average American diet is severely lacking in fiber. This is not a good thing, as regular intake of fiber has been shown to promote weight loss and reduce the risk of numerous diet-linked chronic diseases including colorectal and pancreatic cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But, all fiber is not created equal. There are actually different types of fiber housed in different foods and each type has a specific function in the body.
To reap the full nutritional and health benefits of fiber, a general understanding of each type is crucial.
Fiber generally refers to the indigestible portion of carbohydrates naturally present in plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Since fiber cannot be digested, it is not a source of calories. When you eat fiber-rich foods, your body essentially takes the nutrients it needs from these foods and passes the roughage out. Fiber absorbs excess waste products in the body and pushes them out as well.
The fiber contained in plant-based foods is properly termed dietary fiber and there are two main types—Soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber is so-named because it dissolves in water and becomes viscous forming a gel-like substance that can be broken down in the large intestine (colon). This type of fiber is abundant in beans, peas, apples, citrus fruits, oats and barley. In contrast, insoluble fiber is not dissolvable and is incapable of being broken down in the colon. It is plentiful in the skins of vegetables and fruits, beans, whole-wheat flour, nuts and seeds.
Although they are different, regular consumption of both soluble and insoluble fibers greatly contributes to disease prevention and overall good health.
Soluble fiber is known to stabilize blood glucose (sugar) levels by slowing the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, which is especially beneficial in the prevention and treatment of diabetes. It also helps keep blood cholesterol levels in check. When regularly consumed, soluble fiber repeatedly binds with cholesterol-containing compounds in the small intestine and eliminates them from the body through feces.
Interestingly enough and unbeknownst to many, you can substantially boost your intake of soluble fiber by drinking freshly prepared vegetable and fruit juices.
Insoluble fiber chiefly promotes healthy elimination of waste products from the body. It specifically binds water in ways that make the feces bulkier and softer for quick and easy passage through the intestines. This type of fiber is typically recommended for relief of constipation, hemorrhoids, and digestive disorders like diverticulitis. It also has a unique appetite-suppressing effect that promotes weight loss by increasing feelings of fullness.
This is especially advantageous if you regularly incorporate vegetable and fruit-rich smoothies into your weight loss diet. Unlike fresh juice, smoothies have the added benefit of containing both soluble and insoluble fiber. Just be sure to include any edible outer skins of vegetables and fruits in your blends.
Now, here’s where things get a little bit tricky! In addition to soluble and insoluble fibers, there’s yet another classification to be aware of—Functional fiber.
Functional fiber is that which is either isolated from natural sources or manufactured and added to different foods, drinks and supplements. A food’s total fiber content is the sum of both dietary and functional fibers. There are many types of functional fiber available in commercial products, but only a few have actually been proven beneficial for disease prevention. These are beta-glucan, psyllium and arabinogalactan fibers.
Including these functional fibers in foods and beverages can greatly boost their overall nutritional value. However, simply adding them to products doesn’t necessarily make them any healthier. The many sugar-rich breakfast cereals, drinks and snacks that carry “high-fiber” and “fiber-enriched” labels evidence this, as most are highly refined carbohydrates that have been stripped of beneficial nutrients.
While you can meet your daily fiber needs with functional fibers, it’s better to include a wide range of natural plant-based sources in your daily diet.
For weight control and optimal health, aim to consume at least 25-35 grams of fiber per day from a combination of foods rich in both soluble and insoluble fibers. Again, you can meet your daily fiber needs by supplementing your diet with functional fiber-enriched or fortified foods as well but always check the nutrition labels to ensure they contain beta-glucan, psyllium or arabinogalactan along with other high-quality ingredients.
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Disclaimer: The information provided is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a physician for advice.