How much fiber should we be eating? If you believe the television commercials that run during the nightly news, we’re not even coming close to getting what we need.
First off, let’s look at why fiber is such a big deal. I used to think of fiber as stringy, ropy stuff, like the threads in celery or cabbage. But fiber has actually become a catchall term for any indigestible material that we consume, not all of which is actually fibrous. Cellulose, the building block of much of the fleshy part of fruits and veggies, is an example of non-fibrous fiber. There is soluble fiber, which dissolves in water and helps stabilize blood sugar by slowing the rate of digestion. There is also insoluble fiber, which, as its name would suggest, does not dissolve in water—although it does attract water in the intestinal tract and, well, without getting too graphic, is responsible for the trains running on time, keeping the mail moving, releasing the payload, etc. Most importantly, more and more studies are linking a high-fiber diet to a decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
For optimal health, nutritionists recommend 30 to 38 grams of fiber every day for men and 21 to 25 grams of fiber every day for women. You can find the fiber content of labeled food as a subcategory under carbohydrates. If you’re counting carbs, you can always subtract the amount of fiber from the total number of carbs, because the fiber will only be visiting your body for a little while, unlike the sugars, which, if not burned for fuel, will likely end up stored as fat.
Most studies indicate that Americans don’t get nearly enough fiber, especially with the proliferation of processed foods filled with white flour, which is made only from the fiber-less endosperm of the grain and none of the bran and germ parts that provide the fiber. In fact, if you read labels, it’s pretty rare to find any prepared food that has more than a gram or two of fiber. It can make you despair if you think about having to get to the 21 to 38 grams you need every day. So how can you get your daily dose of fiber without eating yourself into a coma? There are some fiber-rich superfoods that can help get you to your daily recommended allowance, without the coma.
The humble bean (and also chickpea, lentil, and pea) is chock-full of nutritious fiber. A cup of black beans or lentils contains a whopping 15 grams of fiber—half the daily minimum supply required for a man and more than half the minimum required for a woman. Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, have 13 grams of fiber. A cup of peas has 9 grams of fiber. The big winner is the cranberry bean with 18 grams of fiber and 17 grams of protein. Cranberry beans have a creamy texture and a chestnut-like flavor.
While not as great a source of fiber as beans, they’re still pretty fiber rich, and may not have the unpleasant auditory and olfactory effects associated with excessive bean consumption. A cup of bran flakes has about 7 grams of fiber, and a cup of oatmeal has 4 grams of fiber. Substituting whole-wheat products for their traditional white-flour counterparts is an easy way to work some fiber into your diet without much hassle. A cup of whole-wheat spaghetti has over 6 grams of fiber, and whole-wheat bread has about 2 grams of fiber per slice.
Not just for old people anymore. Grandpa and Grandma knew what they were doing when they were suffering from constipation. A cup of prunes contains 8 grams of fiber, and the prune’s hydrated counterpart, the plum, is also an excellent source of fiber—prunes/plums contain insoluble fiber in the skin and soluble fiber in the pulp. That’s a two-for-one special!
One medium artichoke contains 6.5 grams of fiber. One cup of artichoke hearts contains 14 grams of fiber and only 90 calories. I like to get one of those little jars of marinated artichokes (in vinegar, not oil) and treat myself to eating the whole jar as an afternoon snack or hors d’oeuvre before dinner. Tasty and filling, you’ll eat less at dinner and put a serious dent in your daily fiber tally.
5. Brussels sprouts
Yes, they look like the alien heads from Mars Attacks!, but these little powerhouses pack almost 7 grams of fiber into a 1-cup serving and only about 60 calories. Not everyone is enamored with their slightly chalky taste. I recommend a generous spritz of lemon juice and maybe a dash of soy sauce or Tabasco to enhance the flavor. A sprinkle of Parmesan cheese is delicious too.
6. Asian pear
According to the Micronutrient Center of theLinus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, the Asian pear is one of their five fiber-rich superfoods (legumes, bran, prunes, and quinoa are the others). One Asian pear, about 3 inches in diameter, contains a whopping 10 grams of fiber, the most of any similarly sized fruit. And because it has a higher water content than its European brethren, it only contains around 100 calories. So you can crunch your way to a cleaner colon.
Relatively new to the U.S., quinoa has been a South American staple for over 6,000 years. In a 1-cup serving, the edible seeds of the quinoa plant have 10 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein—in fact, quinoa seeds contain many essential amino acids that are missing from rice, proving to be a good substitute for rice. If you check your local health food store, and even some supermarkets, you can find quinoa plain and as a main ingredient in many cereals, breads, and salads.
Not just filling, heart-healthy snacks, nuts are great sources of fiber (but highly caloric, so nosh carefully). A quarter-cup of almonds has 4 grams of fiber and about 200 calories. It’s another great snack for between meals. Watch out for the salt content in the hickory-smoked varieties. Also, it’s a good idea to portion out a serving size beforehand, so you don’t absentmindedly munch a thousand or so calories from a big bag.