Benefits of Fiber: Weight Loss & Less Constipation

The benefits of dietary fiber include lowering cholesterol, preventing constipation and hemorrhoids and weight loss.

Normal-weight adults consume an average of 33 percent more dietary fiber and 43 percent more complex carbohydrates daily than their overweight and obese counterparts. Dietary fiber and complex carbohydrate intake are inversely related to body weight and "most strongly" to percent body fat.

Compared with normal-weight subjects, overweight and obese subjects consume about one less fruit serving daily, which may partly explain their lower fiber and carbohydrate intake.

There are several mechanisms by which dietary fiber may reduce the risk of weight gain or obesity. Dietary fiber, for example, slows digestion, prolonging that "full" feeling and foods high in fiber are usually low in fat and calories.

The weight loss benefit of fiber comes from the feeling of fullness it gives without adding many extra calories. Fiber also helps reduce the absorption of fat to some extent.

Most Americans consume only half the dietary fiber that is recommended - A fiber rich diet lowers cholesterol just as much as taking a statin drug, Canadian researchers reported in February 2005.

They said people who cannot tolerate the statin drugs because of side-effects can turn to a high fiber diet, which they said their volunteers could easily follow.

Low dietary fiber is linked to many illnesses, such as hemorrhoids, cancer, diabetes, varicose veins, heart disease, appendicitis and chronic constipation.

Cancer affecting the colon and/or rectum is diagnosed in more than 140,000 Americans each year. About one in nine cases affect people younger than 50, or up to about 15,000 young people annually.

Chronic constipation is the biggest GI (gastrointestinal) complaint in the United States, particularly among older people. Constipation accounts for more than 2.5 million physician visits a year and is among the most frequent reasons for patient self-medication.

Taking antacids containing aluminum or calcium, painkillers, antidepressants or diuretics may cause constipation. Even aging itself can increase the occurrence of constipation. As a person ages, the colon wall thickens. When this thickening is combined with a lifetime diet low in fiber, constipation can result.

An apple, an orange, a tangerine or banana a day can help keep the doctor away! Eat raisins as a snack or add them to your oatmeal, cream of wheat or bran flakes in the morning. Fruits are high in fiber and loaded with antioxidants and minerals.

Hemorrhoids and constipation can make people really grumpy. Changing your diet just a little can produce healthy results and prevent lots of trouble. Start by reducing processed foods from your diet. White flour snacks, breads, and cereals are major villains.

In the last century, white flour has become a major part of our diets. This simple carbohydrate acts in our bodies much like white sugar - empty calories that disrupt energy and insulin levels and increase body fat. The risk for diabetes also increases with consumption of white bread and other products made with white flour. Try whole wheat instead.

There's more to fiber than boring bran flakes and prunes. For those seeking a more appealing way to add both soluble and insoluble fiber to your diet, here are some other foods that are good sources of fiber. Most high fiber foods contain a mix of both types.

Sources of Soluble Fiber:

  • Legumes such as pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, peas, lentils.

  • Various brans: rice, oat, barley, corn, wheat.

  • Fruits and vegetables including apples, oranges, pears, carrots, peaches, grapes, potatoes, and squash.

  • Corn and popcorn.

  • Seeds and nuts.

  • Whole-grain breads, cereals and pasta.

Sources of Insoluble Fiber:

  • Wheat bran and whole grain products such as bread, crackers, some breakfast cereals, bran muffins.

  • Whole-wheat flour, brown rice, kidney beans.

  • Fruits such as strawberries, boysenberries, pears, apples, citrus.

  • Vegetables including green beans, broccoli, peppers, spinach, carrots, tomatoes and artichokes. These may also contain some soluble fiber.

  • Almonds, chunky peanut butter.

Meat, cheese and eggs contain no fiber. Only plant foods - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds provide the fiber essential to good health.

Some vegetables, grain products and fruits are higher in fiber than others. For example, a half-cup of cooked carrots has four times as much fiber as a cup of raw spinach. A medium baked potato contains more fiber than one-half cup of cooked brown rice. Whole wheat bread has twice as much fiber as white bread.

Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans provide the daily recommended intake of fiber. Five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, plus seven servings of whole grains and beans, will not only provide the needed fiber, but also the vitamins and minerals necessary to lower your cancer risk.

People who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to live long lives and have lower than average rates of heart disease, but what are the diet's magic ingredients?

Large quantities of antioxidant- rich wine? Preferences for fish full of protective omega-3 fatty acids?

A group of Spanish researchers suggest it is due to lots and lots of fiber.

M. A. Martinez- Gonzalez of the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain and colleagues surveyed the diets of a group of Spanish residents and found that people who ate the most fiber were 86% less likely than those who ate the least fiber to suffer a non-fatal heart attack.

Furthermore, the study authors note, this link between high fiber and low risk of heart attack existed independently of other dietary factors that can influence cardiovascular health.

"Our data suggest that a substantial part of the postulated benefits of the Mediterranean diet on coronary risk might be attributed to a high intake of fiber and fruit," Martinez-Gonzalez and colleagues write.

Scientists were first alerted to the possible significance of the diet rich in vegetables, fruit, grains, wine, olive oil, beans and fish, when they began to notice lower rates of heart disease in Mediterranean populations. In these areas, geographic and agricultural factors have fostered the adoption of diets relatively high in fiber and fatty acids, and low in artery-clogging saturated fats.

Despite the apparent benefits of the diet, the authors of the current report write that relatively few studies of the relationship between nutrition and heart disease have focused on residents of Mediterranean countries.

In response, the researchers conducted nutritional surveys of 171 residents of a local hospital who had suffered their first, non-fatal heart attack, and compared their diets with those of people who had not had a heart attack.

Reporting in a 2002 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the investigators found that people who ate the most fiber were 86% less likely to have a heart attack than people who reported eating the least fiber. Eating fruit also appeared to cut the risk of heart attack, although the researchers found no relationship between heart attack and vegetable or legume intake.

Many past studies have linked high fiber consumption to a lower-than-average risk of heart disease, Martinez-Gonzalez's team notes.

In the 2002 study, people who ate a lot of fruit appeared to be no better off than those who ate average amounts - at least 250 grams, or around two servings, per day, suggesting that some type of "threshold" exists regarding the benefits of eating fruit.

In addition to adding fiber, fruit improves health by taking the place of less healthy treats. "The pattern of eating almost exclusively fruit as the dessert after the main meals may explain the high consumption observed in Spain and may have some interesting benefits, such as replacing alternative foods rich in saturated fat," such as ice cream, cakes and cookies.

SOURCE: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2002;56:715-722.

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