Natural Health Journals

Is Not Eating Enough Fiber Bad for the Heart?

Biscuits and healthy eating

Two large reviews of studies on dietary fiber published recently confirm findings in previous studies, which showed that eating enough fiber is beneficial for our heart and circulatory systems (as well as our digestive systems and general health). The studies found that eating enough food fiber is associated with lower risks for numerous cardiovascular illnesses.

The first study, out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reviewed data collected from more than 23,000 American adults between 1999 and 2010. Researchers found that low fiber intake was closely linked to risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, inflammation and metabolic syndrome. (Metabolic syndrome is the name of a group of factors that increase a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. These risk factors are: a large waistline, a high triglyceride fat level in the blood, low HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar. A person can have any one of these metabolic risk factors by itself; when a person has three or more, a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome is made.)

Previous studies had found that eating enough fiber may help lower blood pressure and ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. Yet, this latest study found that despite the many apparent benefits, a lot of Americans fall short of consuming recommended levels of dietary fiber.

The study, which was published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Medicine, found that the average study participant only consumed 16 grams of fiber a day. This is substantially less than recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, an independent organization that advises the United States government on health matters.

IOM guidelines for dietary fiber are as follows:

  • 38 grams/day for men 19-50
  • 30 grams/day for men over 50
  • 25 grams/day for women 19-50
  • 21 grams/day for women over 50

The study also uncovered racial and ethnic differences in fiber intake: Mexican Americans consumed more fiber in their diet than Anglo-Saxons, while African Americans consumed less fiber than those two groups.

The second study, from the University of Leeds in England, found that increasing daily fiber consumption by just 7 grams was associated with reduced risks of coronary heart disease (plaque buildup in the heart’s arteries) and cardiovascular disease (disease, including plaque, or other dysfunctions, in the heart or blood vessels). A 7-gram increase in fiber can be achieved by eating just a couple of additional daily servings of fiber-rich foods.

Researchers in the English study, which was published recently online in BMJ, reviewed data from 22 observational studies that had a minimum of three years’ follow-up, and which had been published since 1990. The studies were mostly conducted in the U. S. and Europe; two were done in Japan and one in Australia. Study authors pointed out that they had reviewed only dietary fiber, and not fiber isolates or extracts (such as those found in fiber supplements at stores).

What Is Fiber?

Fiber, a carbohydrate, is tissue or ‘fibers’ from the plants that we eat; fiber does not break down in our stomachs and it passes through our gastrointestinal tracts undigested. Meats and dairy contain no dietary fiber.

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water in the stomach and forms a gel; this gel has useful properties for our health: it makes us feel full and it slows down emptying from the stomach, keeping us satiated longer. This can help avoid unwanted weight gain.

The gel formed by soluble fiber also slows down the rate at which sugars and fat molecules from the food we just ate will enter our bloodstream. That can help prevent diabetes and reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in our blood.

Insoluble fiber does not absorb water and passes through our system relatively intact. Insoluble fiber helps the digestion by bulking up the foods that we eat and aiding in the elimination process.

Both types of fiber are very important and should be consumed daily.

Getting Your Fiber the Natural, Tasty Way

Eating enough fiber is as easy as eating a healthy diet. While many people who suffer from constipation turn to fiber supplements, these are unnecessary. If you eat a well-balanced diet of natural, whole foods, you will be regular and not get constipated.

The following foods are rich in dietary fiber:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • whole grains
  • legumes (beans, lentils, etc.)
  • nuts
  • seeds

Most fruits and vegetables are great sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber, though some contain more or less of each type than others. And some, like carrots, are good sources of both. Whole grains, nuts and seeds are an especially good source of insoluble fiber.

In addition to promoting good cardiovascular and digestive health, you should also think of the many great, powerful nutrients and antioxidants that you consume when you eat high-fiber foods. This is another important reason to get your fiber the natural and flavorful way, instead of buying bland, nutrient-depleted fiber supplements.

If you’re not accustomed to eating lots of dietary fiber, you may experience increased gas at first. Don’t let this dissuade you from eating fiber; as your system becomes accustomed to the higher fiber intake, gas problems will diminish.

Beans should be soaked in water overnight before cooking, to avoid gas problems. Dump water you used to soak them and fill pot with fresh water when you’re ready to cook. Also, watch out for cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and others), which give some people gas. If some vegetables are a problem, try others! There are many choices!

Tips for Getting More Dietary Fiber:

  • Eat more fruits, instead of always drinking fruit juices
  • Snack on raw vegetables like baby carrots, celery sticks, broccoli and cauliflower (use healthy dips, such as fresh lemon juice, mustard, melted butter, natural peanut butter, etc.; stay away from salad dressings with toxic chemicals!)
  • Snack on nuts and seeds (with a small glass of juice on the side! The idea here is balance and variety)
  • Eat whole-grain cereals or oatmeal (with nuts, raisins or chopped fruits) for breakfast, instead of the popular, sugary kids’ cereals that have little fiber but many non-nutritious or toxic additives
  • When you eat a food like a hamburger, pile on the lettuce, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc.
  • Add beans, seeds and chopped herbs to your soups, salads and cooking

And remember to always drink plenty of water (several glasses of water a day, in addition to milk, juices, coffee, teas). Greater dietary fiber intake means you’ll need more water for soluble fiber gels to form, and for insoluble fibers to form waste.

By Jamell Andrews

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