How much fiber do you need

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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 that I conveniently list here:

I 25 grams a day for women younger than 50

I 38 grams a day for men younger than 50

I 21 grams a day for women older than 50

I 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.

Unpleasantries? Like what? And how will you know if you've got them?

Trust me: 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 (for more about water, see Chapter 13).

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

I 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.

I Always check the nutrition label whenever you shop (for more about the wonderfully informative guides, see Chapter 17). 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!

i 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 (for more about how your body uses the water you drink, see Chapter 13). 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. How much is enough? Back to Chapter 13.

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Table 8-2 shows the amounts of all types of dietary fiber — insoluble plus soluble — in a 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving of specific foods. By the way, nutritionists like to measure things in terms of 100-gram portions because that makes comparing foods at a glance possible.

To find the amount of dietary fiber in your own serving, divide the gram total for the food shown in Table 8-2 by 3.5 to get the grams per ounce, and then multiply the result by the number of ounces in your portion. For example, if you're having 1 ounce of cereal, the customary serving of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, divide the gram total of dietary fiber by 3.5; then multiply by one. If your slice of bread weighs K ounce, divide the gram total by 3.5; then multiply the result by 0.5 (12).

Or — let's get real! — you can look at the nutrition label on the side of the package that gives the nutrients per portion.

Finally, the amounts on this chart are averages. Different brands of processed products (breads, some cereals, cooked fruits, and vegetables) may have more (or less) fiber per serving.

Fiber factoid

The amount of fiber in a serving of food may depend on whether the food is raw or cooked. For example, as you can see from Table 8-2, a 3.5-ounce serving of plain dried prunes has 7.2 grams of fiber while a 3.5-ounce serving of stewed prunes has 6.6 grams of fiber.

Why? When you stew prunes, they plump up — which means they absorb water. The water adds weight but (obviously) no fiber. So a serving of prunes-plus-water has slightly less fiber per ounce than a same-weight serving of plain dried prunes.

Table 8-2

Fiber Content in Common Foods


Grams of Fiber in a 100-Gram (3.5-Ounce) Serving




Bran bread


Pita bread (white)


Pita bread (whole wheat)


White bread



Bran cereal


Bran flakes






Wheat flakes



Barley, pearled (minus its outer covering), raw


Cornmeal, whole grain




Oat bran, raw


Rice, raw (brown)


Rice, raw (white)


Rice, raw (wild)


Wheat bran



Apple, with skin


Apricots, dried


Figs, dried


Kiwi fruit



Grams of Fiber in a 100-Gram (3.5-Ounce) Serving

Pear, raw


Prunes, dried


Prunes, stewed





Baked beans (vegetarian)


Chickpeas (canned)


Lima beans, cooked


Broccoli, raw


Brussels sprouts, cooked


Cabbage, white, raw


Cauliflower, raw


Corn, sweet, cooked


Peas with edible pods, raw 2.6

Potatoes, white, baked, w/ skin 5.5

Sweet potato, cooked


Tomatoes, raw



Almonds, oil-roasted


Coconut, raw


Hazelnuts, oil-roasted


Peanuts, dry-roasted





Corn chips, toasted


Tahini (sesame seed paste) 9.3



Provisional Table on the Dietary Fiber Content of Selected Foods (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1988)

Provisional Table on the Dietary Fiber Content of Selected Foods (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1988)

Fiber and your heart: The continuing saga of oat bran

Oat bran is the second chapter in the fiber fad that started with wheat bran around 1980. Wheat bran, the fiber in wheat, is rich in the insoluble fibers cellulose and lignin. Oat bran's gee-whiz factor is the soluble fiber beta-glucans. For more than 30 years, scientists have known that eating foods high in soluble fiber can lower your cholesterol, although nobody knows exactly why. Fruits and vegetables (especially dried beans) are high in soluble fiber, but ounce for ounce, oats have more. In addition, beta-glucans are a more effective cholesterol-buster than pectin and gum, which are the soluble fibers in most fruits and vegetables.

By 1990, researchers at the University of Kentucky reported that people who add !/S cup dry oat bran (not oatmeal) to their regular daily diets can lower their levels of low density lipoproteins (LDLs), the particles that carry cholesterol into your arteries, by as much as 25 percent (see Chapter 7 for more on cholesterol).

Recently, scientists at the Medical School of Northwestern University, funded by Quaker Oats, enlisted 208 healthy volunteers whose normal cholesterol readings averaged about 200 mg/dl for a study involving oat bran. The volunteers' total cholesterol levels decreased an average of 9.3 percent with a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet supplemented by 2 ounces of oats or oat bran every day. About one-third of the cholesterol reduction was credited to the oats.

Oat cereal makers rounded the total loss to 10 percent, and the National Research Council said that a 10 percent drop in cholesterol could produce a 20 percent drop in the risk of a heart attack.

Do I have to tell you what happened next? Books on oat bran hit the bestseller list. Cheerios elbowed Frosted Flakes aside to become the number one cereal in America. And people added oat bran to everything from bagels to orange juice.

Today scientists know that although a little oat bran can't hurt, the link between oats and cholesterol levels is no cure-all.

As a general rule, an adult whose cholesterol level is higher than 250 mg/dl is considered to be at high risk. A cholesterol reading between 200 and 250 mg/dl is considered moderately risky A cholesterol level below 200 mg/dl is considered pretty good. No, that's not a technical term, but you get the idea.

If your cholesterol level is above 250 mg/dl, lowering it by 10 percent through a diet that contains oat bran may reduce your risk of heart attack without the use of medication. If your cholesterol level is lower than that to begin with, the effects of oat bran are less dramatic. For example:

1 If your cholesterol level is below 250 mg/dl, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet alone may push it down 15 points into the moderately risky range. Adding oats reduces it another 8 points but doesn't take you into okey-dokey territory, under 200 mg/dl.

1 If your cholesterol is already low, say 199 mg/dl or less, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet plus oats may drop it to 180 mg/dl, but the oats account for only 6 points of your loss.

Recognizing oat bran's benefits, the Food and Drug Administration now permits health claims on oat product labels. For example, the product label may say: "Soluble fiber from foods such as oat bran, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."

By the way, the soluble pectin in apples and the soluble beta-glucans (gums) in beans and peas also lower cholesterol levels. The insoluble fiber in wheat bran does not.

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