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Adding Fiber to Your Diet the Healthy Way

You find dietary fiber in all plant foods — fruits, vegetables, and grains, but none in foods from animals: meat, fish, poultry, milk, milk products, and eggs. A balanced diet with lots of foods from plants gives you both insoluble and soluble fiber.

Most foods that contain fiber have both kinds, although the balance usually tilts toward one or the other. For example, the predominant fiber in an apple is pectin (a soluble fiber), but an apple peel also has some cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin (insoluble fibers).

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American woman gets about 12 grams of fiber a day from food; the average American man, 17 grams. Those figures are well below the new IOM (Institute of Medicine) recommendations:

  • 25 grams a day for women younger than 50

  • 38 grams a day for men younger than 50

  • 21 grams a day for women older than 50

  • 30 grams a day for men older than 50

The amounts of dietary fiber recommended by IOM are believed to give you the benefits you want without causing fiber-related — um — unpleasantries.

If you eat more than enough fiber, your body will tell you right away. All that roughage may irritate your intestinal tract, which will issue an unmistakable protest in the form of intestinal gas or diarrhea. In extreme cases, if you don’t drink enough liquids to moisten and soften the fiber you eat so that it easily slides through your digestive tract, the dietary fiber may form a mass that can end up as an intestinal obstruction.

If you decide to up the amount of fiber in your diet, follow this advice:

  • Do so very gradually, a little bit more every day. That way you’re less likely to experience intestinal distress. In other words, if your current diet is heavy on no-fiber foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, and cheese, and low-fiber foods such as white bread and white rice, don’t load up on bran cereal (35 grams dietary fiber per 3.5-ounce serving) or dried figs (9.3 grams per serving) all at once.

    Start by adding a serving of cornflakes (2.0 grams dietary fiber) at breakfast, maybe an apple (2.8 grams) at lunch, a pear (2.6 grams) at mid-afternoon, and a half cup of baked beans (7.7 grams) at dinner. Four simple additions, and already you’re up to 15 grams dietary fiber.

  • Always check the nutrition label whenever you shop. When choosing between similar products, just take the one with the higher fiber content per serving. For example, white pita bread generally has about 1.6 grams dietary fiber per serving. Whole wheat pita bread has 7.4 grams. From a fiber standpoint, you know which works better for your body. Go for it!

  • Get enough liquids. Dietary fiber is like a sponge. It sops up liquid, so increasing your fiber intake may deprive your cells of the water they need to perform their daily work. That’s why the American Academy of Family Physicians (among others) suggests checking to make sure you get plenty fluids when you consume more fiber.

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