Benefits, uses, side effects and more
Benefits, uses, side effects and more

Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body cannot fully digest. It is found in plant foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Fiber offers a wide variety of health benefits. However, most people in the United States consume only about half of the recommended daily allowance.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber slows digestion. It turns into a gel when dissolved in water, which affects blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber speeds up digestion and keeps your bowels running smoothly. It does not dissolve or enter your blood, so it does not affect blood sugar.

Both types of fiber offer different health benefits. However, it is possible to have too much fiber. There are also some safety considerations when taking fiber supplements.

Fiber is often associated with preventing constipation and aiding digestion. It offers a variety of potential health benefits, including diabetes and cancer prevention, as well as weight loss. Many of these benefits are related to gut health.

1. Prevents blood sugar spikes

Type 2 diabetes is a major health problem in the United States. About 11% of Americans have diabetes, and up to 95% of those people have type 2 diabetes. Both prediabetes and metabolic syndrome are present in about 33% of the population.

Metabolic syndrome is a group of medical conditions that increase the risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Key factors include high blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

Managing diabetes requires keeping blood sugar levels stable. Fiber is a carbohydrate that does not raise your blood sugar because it is not digested.

2. Supports gut health

Fiber acts like a broom, moving the contents of your intestines, but it can do more than that. Everyone has trillions of gut bacteria living in their gut. Your gut contains good bacteria that help you digest food and keep bad bacteria at bay. This is known as your microbiome.

Diets high in dietary fiber positively affect your gut microbiota, which improves whole-body health. Scientists are still studying the gut microbiome, but research shows that a healthy gut affects health factors such as blood glucose (sugar), cholesterol and insulin levels.

3. May reduce the risk of colon cancer

Many types of colon cancer begin as benign polyps (non-cancerous growths) in the colon (large intestine) or rectum (the end of the large intestine, just before the anus). These growths can take more than 10 years to develop into cancer.

A common belief is that high-fiber diets reduce the risk of developing these polyps in the first place, thereby reducing the risk of colon cancer.

Research shows mixed results about the role of fiber in colon cancer. Some studies show a lower risk, while others show no effect. Several reviews specifically found a reduction in risk when participants ate more fiber from grains or whole grains.

4. It can help you lose weight

Over 75% of US adults and 20% of children and adolescents have a weight that is considered overweight or obese. Foods high in fiber can help with weight loss because they take longer to eat and digest, helping you feel fuller longer after eating.

One study of 345 participants eating various calorie-restricted diets found that high fiber intake promoted weight loss, regardless of the amounts of various macronutrients the participants ate. Macronutrients are the basic building blocks of food. These include proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

5. May help prevent diverticulitis

Diverticulitis is a condition where pouches form in the intestines and become inflamed. This can lead to severe pain and complications. Diverticulitis is very common in the United States. Over 30% of adults live with it. This percentage rises to 70% over the age of 80.

For a long time, patients with diverticulitis were advised to avoid nuts, seeds, or fruits with a high seed content such as strawberries, for fear that these foods could become lodged in the pouches and cause inflammation. However, studies show that high-fiber diets with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are strongly associated with less diverticular disease.

6. May reduce the risk of breast cancer

Each year, about 240,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the leading cause of cancer death among minorities.

One review of 20 studies found that people who ate more fiber had a lower risk of breast cancer. Most of the studies reviewed relied on food frequency questionnaires, where participants were asked what foods they had eaten recently.

Studies like these are flawed because participants may not remember accurately or feel embarrassed to admit what they ate. More research is needed to establish clear links between fiber and breast cancer.

7. It can improve your heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, with one person dying every 33 seconds. Many studies have examined the effect of fiber on heart disease. The results show that diets high in fiber tend to have a protective effect against heart disease and atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries).

It is important to note that many of these studies were observational and were unable to determine whether higher fiber intake clearly reduced the risk of heart disease. More research is needed.

Fiber-rich foods are plentiful and easy to find. Here are some common sources of fiber:

  • Leafy greens like lettuce, Swiss chard and spinach
  • Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts
  • Root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes
  • Beans, legumes and peas
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fruit (eg apples, kiwis, tomatoes, avocados)
  • Whole grains (eg oats, barley, quinoa, brown rice)

Here is the fiber content of a few specific high-fiber foods:

  • Black beans: 9 grams (g) per ½ cup, or 32% of the daily value (DV)
  • avocado: 4.6 g per ½ fruit, or 18% of the DV
  • Sweet potato: 4 g in a medium potato or 15% of the DV
  • Dried apples: 4 g in ½ cup, or 15% of the DV
  • Blackberries: 3.5 g in 1 cup, or 12.5% ​​of the DV
  • Whole grain bread: 3 g in 1 slice, or 11% of the DV

You can increase your fiber intake by eating more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. There are also many products with fiber supplements on the market. Fiber supplements are sold in pharmacies and grocery stores as powders, tablets, and gums.

There is no official recommended time of day to take fiber supplements. Always check with your healthcare provider if it is safe to take fiber supplements, as they can interact with certain medications. You’ll also want to ask them about the recommended dosage.

Dosage

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025 recommend 22-34 grams of fiber per day, depending on age and gender. You’ll want to spread your fiber intake throughout the day by including high-fiber foods at every meal and snack.

Fiber supplements are not meant to replace high-fiber foods in your diet. However, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about taking a supplement if you have a hard time eating enough high-fiber foods throughout the day.

Supplements can also help soften stools if you are constipated. Your healthcare provider may recommend using one short-term — for example, for a few weeks — if you’re particularly blocked.

Fiber is a safe and natural substance in food, but here are some safety considerations.

It is important to drink a full glass of water when taking fiber supplements, as water helps move fiber through your digestive tract. Eating fiber without enough water can also cause the product to swell, which can cause choking.

You may want to avoid certain fiber supplements like psyllium if you have certain medical conditions, including:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Bowel obstruction (when your small or large intestine becomes partially or completely blocked)
  • Difficulty swallowing

People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) should talk to their healthcare provider about whether they need specific types of fiber.

Potential drug interactions

Taking a fiber supplement can affect how your body absorbs medications, making them less effective. For example, blond psyllium is a soluble fiber that can reduce your body’s absorption of:

  • Diabetes medications such as Glucophage (metformin)
  • Mental health medications such as lithium and Zyprexa (olanzapine), both used to treat conditions such as bipolar disorder
  • Medications for seizures such as Tegretol (carbamazepine)
  • Heart medications such as Lanoxin (digoxin), which treats heart failure and atrial fibrillation, or A-Fib (irregular heart rhythm)

Health care providers may recommend taking a fiber supplement about an hour after medications like these.

Where to find

High-fiber foods are easy to find in grocery stores, especially in the produce section. Look for foods like lentils, beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains at your grocery store and check food labels for fiber content.

Fiber supplements are available at pharmacies and most grocery stores. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so check supplement brands and choose one with third-party safety testing.

Can you have too much fiber?

You may be consuming too much fiber. Consuming more than the recommended amount can lead to unpleasant side effects such as gas and bloating. These side effects may go away as your body adjusts to more fiber.

Fiber can also reduce your body’s absorption of certain minerals, including calcium and magnesium. Fortunately, foods high in fiber often also contain high levels of minerals.

Although fiber is good for you, you may experience some side effects—especially if you increase fiber too quickly. Most side effects are gastrointestinal, meaning they are related to the digestive system. The most common side effects include:

You can reduce the risk of unpleasant side effects by gradually increasing fiber and staying well hydrated.

Fiber is part of a healthy diet and can reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. It supports a healthy gut and can be helpful for weight loss.

Fiber is found in many whole foods, including grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Fiber supplements are widely available if you have difficulty including enough high-fiber foods in your diet or if you need digestive support.

Increase your fiber intake slowly and drink plenty of water to reduce unpleasant side effects such as cramping and bloating. Always check with your healthcare provider before trying new supplements.

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