You’re supposed to eat between 25 and 30 grams of fiber a day—the amount found in a bowl of bran cereal, a cup of pinto beans, two apples and two slices of whole-wheat bread—but if you’re like most Americans, you only get half as much. Is it a problem? You bet, especially if your heart health is at stake.
Research suggests that fiber packs a powerful cardioprotective punch. And the benefits don’t come just from soluble fiber, the type that helps lower cholesterol levels (good sources: oat bran, barley, citrus fruits, strawberries, dried beans and other legumes). Recent studies suggest that insoluble fiber, found in such foods as wheat bran, cabbage, beets and carrots, also may play a role.
In one such study, the dietary records of nearly 22,000 Finnish men between ages 50 and 69 were analyzed. Those who ate 3 grams more of fiber a day—about a slice of traditional rye bread—reduced their risk of death from coronary artery disease by 27 percent.
Why? While they can’t say for sure, the study team says the protection can’t be the result of fiber’s cholesterol-lowering effect alone. They suspect that fiber may also lower other blood fats such as triglycerides, help the body use sugar more efficiently and possibly have a hand in controlling blood pressure.
For its part, the American Heart Association (AHA) urges people to get their daily ration from a wide variety of sources—whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. According to the AHA, high-fiber foods help in at least two ways: 1) by reducing how much dietary fat is absorbed by the body and 2) by changing the way cholesterol is made in the body.
And you don’t have to be a scientist to figure out that filling up on high-fiber foods leaves you less hungry for high-calorie, high-fat fare. That translates into better weight control and reduced risk of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Even so, fiber isn’t a miracle substance. It must be eaten within the context of a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet to be helpful.
Here’s how to get your fill of fiber:Make cereal and fruit your morning meal.Add grains like bulgur and wheat berries to salads.Keep high-fiber snacks handy: raisins, berries, a banana, whole-grain crackers, mini-shredded wheat.Have a meatless meal at least twice a week. Base entrees around beans, lentils, brown rice, broccoli, peas and other fiber-rich foods.Read labels. Brown bread may not necessarily be high in fiber. The only way to tell if the loaf is made from whole grain is to scan the nutrition panel.