Fibers and whole grains are consumed less than any other nutrient. Producers label their products whole grain when in fact they are poor sources of fiber, which makes it even more difficult to meet the daily recommended dose. Find out:
- why fiber is so important
- what the best sources of fiber are and
- how to recognize quality whole grain products
Current fiber intake
Compared to other nutrients dietary fiber and whole grains are by far the least consumed in the typical American diet. Whole grains are an important source of fiber. Most Americans consume roughly about 16 g of fiber a day. This is less than half of the recommended daily fiber intake. To make things worse a significant percentage of the fiber intake comes from potatoes and processed products like yeast breads, rolls, tortillas, cereals and sweet bakery products. These products typically lack the nutrition fresh fiber rich fruits and vegetables bring to the table.
This is why dietary fiber was classified as a nutrient of concern by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Benefits of fiber intake
Why is it so important to have an adequate fiber intake from healthy sources? Fiber seems to be one of the most important ingredients we can eat to keep a healthy body. An old study form the 50’s comparing coronary heart disease between the native population and Asian immigrants in Uganda found that among native Africans heart disease was almost non-existent. The Asian community on the other hand had a high percentage of cardio-vascular deaths. This was first contributed to the fact that the Asians consumed a high-fat diet compared to the a low-fat diet the Africans had. Today also another factor is believed to be crucial for such a big disproportion. In addition to consuming a low-fat diet the Africans ate a lot of fiber from fruits and vegetables. Their staple foods were green plantain, sweet potatoes, cassava, yams, maize, millet, pumpkins, tomatoes, and green leafy vegetables. The Asians in Uganda tended to eat a lot of refined grains through polished rice and different kinds of breads fried in butter or oil.
- Preventing constipation
Fiber adds bulk to your stools and pulls water into the colon, making your stools softer and more frequent.
- Contributing to a feeling of fullness after eating which assists in weight management
A high fiber diet keeps you full for longer period of times, preventing to feel hunger between meals which makes overeating less likely.
- Reducing risk of cardiovascular disease
Fiber gets rid of excess bile by binding with it and taking it out of your system. Bile is composed of cholesterol, so by getting rid of the bile, fiber actually gets rid of excess cholesterol. That way the risk of cardiovascular disease is decreased.
- Reducing risk of Type 2 diabetes and improving blood sugar levels
Fiber slows down the speed food travels through intestines and sugar is absorbed in the blood stream. This prevents blood sugar to spike after meals.
- Reducing inflammation in the body
Fibers are prebiotics that nourish beneficial strains of gut bacteria optimizing the gut flora. Fibers are food for good bacteria in our gut. The bacteria further ferments fiber into short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. These short chain fatty acids have various health benefits. Among other they suppress inflammation in the gut and other tissues and increase insulin sensitivity.
Recommended fiber intake
There are two different kinds of fibers:
- Soluble fibers
They dissolve in water and form a gel. They are important because they slow down the digestion preventing spikes in blood sugar levels and getting rid of excess bile.
- Insoluble fibers
They don’t dissolve in water but bind with it. This fiber is the bulk that forms our stool and is also food for the good gut bacteria situated in our colon.
It is important to consume both types of fiber. The general recommendation is to consume 21-29 g/day fiber for women and 30-38 g/day for men. This includes both soluble and insoluble fiber. Typically, natural occurring sources of fiber contain both types of fiber, so you don’t really have to worry about which type of fiber you’re eating. Simply concentrate on eating naturally fiber rich food.
Recommended fiber intake:Women: 21-29 g/ day, Men: 30-38 g/ day
Rich sources of fiber
It is best to eat fiber from natural occurring sources, since they come bundled with health improving vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. No fiber supplement alone will make up for a poor diet. When thinking fiber think of the fruit and vegetable aisle instead of the cereal aisle in the supermarket.
Best natural sources of fiber are fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, beans, nuts and seeds. Here is a list of foods high in fiber from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,2010.
Don’t be fooled: Whole grains are not all the same
The biggest confusion comes from whole grain products when it comes to fiber consumption. Whole grains can be a valuable source of fibers but nowadays many products seem to have this label. Producers know that consumers are more likely to buy a product if it is labeled with the words whole or whole grain. Surely Froot Loops aren’t the best source of whole grain fiber or are they?
You can simply check it when reading the food label. A team from the Harvard School of Public Health published a report in the journal Public Health Nutrition that explains how to select more healthful whole grain products.
The Harvard team investigated 545 grain products sold in two major stores in the US. They came to the conclusion that products that have a 10:1 carb-to-fiber ratio are a good source of whole grains and products that have a 5:1 carb-to-fiber ratio are excellent sources of whole grains. The products that fell into these categories tended to have a substantial amount of whole grains, less added sugars, calories, trans fat and sodium.
Excellent sources of whole grain have a 5:1 carbohydrate-to fiber ratio
You can easily check this ratio by looking at any food label:
- Take the amount of total carbohydrates and divide it by 10 (for the 10:1 ratio) or by 5 (for the 5:1 ratio).
- Check the amount of fibers listed on the product label. The amount of fiber has to be more than the previously calculated number. If not it doesn’t meet the 10:1 or 5:1 ratio.
The first example is Mestemacher Whole Rye Bread.
Ingredients: Whole Kernel Rye, Water, Wholemeal Rye Flour, Salt, Oat Fiber, Yeast
The label shows 26 g of total carbohydrates. 26 divided by 5 is 5.2 g. One serving of this bread has 6 g fiber, which is higher than 5.2 g. That means this bread is a quality whole grain. Also a plus is the short ingredient list with listed whole grains that are used.
The second example is Sara Lee Whole Grain White Hot Dog Buns.
Ingredients: Enriched Bleached Flour [Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid], Water, Whole Wheat Flour, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Wheat Gluten, Vegetable Oil (Soybean And/Or Cottonseed Oils). Contains 2% Or Less of Each of The Following: Salt, Yeast Nutrients (Calcium Sulfate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Ammonium Sulfate), Dough Conditioners (May Contain One Or More of The Following: Mono- And Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide, Enzymes), Corn Starch, Calcium Propionate
The label shows 22 g of total carbohydrates. 22 divided by 10 is 2.2 g. One serving of this bread has only 1 g fiber, which is lower than 2.2 g. That means this bread is a low quality whole grain. A hint is also the long ingredient list with bleached flour as the main ingredient, added sugar and additives. This product has added a little bit of whole wheat flour which is why it can be labeled as whole wheat, when in fact it is a poor source of fiber.
Don’t look out for shiny labels and long ingredient lists anymore. The next time when buying whole grains look out for products that meet the 5:1 ratio for excellent whole grain quality and don’t go under the 10:1 ratio. Simply put everything back on the shelf that doesn’t meet these standards, it’s simply not worth your money and health.