You might have heard it from the media, someone in the medical community, or even friends and family: you should be eating lots of fiber daily. But do you know why it’s such a good idea? Or which foods contain fiber?

First, what is fiber? ‘Dietary fiber’ is the term for all parts of plant foods that your body can’t digest or absorb. There are two types: insoluble and soluble.

Insoluble fiber passes through our digestive systems in close to its original form. It has been associated with improving bowel regularity and intestinal health, and decreasing constipation. Good sources of insoluble fiber include whole wheat and whole grain products, wheat bran, nuts, and some vegetables, such as turnips, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

Did you know even sweet potatoes are a high-fiber treat?

Soluble fiber, on the other hand, dissolves in water to form a gel-like material, and has been associated with lowering cholesterol and stabilizing blood glucose levels. A recent study from the University of Illinois found that soluble fiber could also reduce inflammation associated with obesity-related diseases and strengthen the immune system. Good sources of soluble fiber include oats and oatmeal, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), barley, and fruits and vegetables, especially oranges, apples, and carrots.

How much fiber do we need? According to the Institute of Medicine, women under the age of 50 should be eating a minimum of 25 grams of fiber per day. Women’s fiber needs don’t change much over time, so even women over 50 need to make sure they get enough—at least 21grams per day.

The sad news is that most women (and men) don’t even come close to meeting these recommendations. So even though there are two types of fiber, don’t focus on that. Instead, just make sure you are consuming enough high-fiber foods per day.

Some easy ways to fit more fiber into your daily diet:

Don’t skip breakfast. Start your day with a high fiber cereal, such as oatmeal, slice in some strawberries, and top with ground flax seed, which adds an extra fiber kick.

Try whole wheat bread instead of white (look for at least 3 grams of fiber per slice), then build your lunchtime sandwich with lettuce and tomato.

Be adventurous with grains: try barley, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, and whole-wheat couscous instead of sticking with plain white rice.

Make sure to start dinner with a salad, and fill half your plate with veggies.

Add beans and veggies to your pasta sauce and toss some chickpeas on your salad.

Have a piece of fruit for dessert.

Buy plain low-fat yogurt and sweeten it yourself with fresh fruit.

Keri Gans is a Registered Dietitian in private practice in Manhattan. She is a Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association Spokesperson (ADA), an ADA Delegate for NY State, and a Past President of the New York State Dietetic Association. Her book, The Small Change Diet, will be available in Spring 2011. She is a member of the WVFC Medical Advisory Board.

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