Whenever experts talk about digestive health, the one word that comes up more often than not is fiber.
Rich in vitamins and minerals, fiber works by sponging and scouring your digestive tract. It's one of the best-known preventives and cure-alls for constipation, and it can be helpful in managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Recent research conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston reveals it may also relieve heartburn and protect against gastroesophageal reflux disease.
What's more, "eating a sufficient amount of fiber daily helps with weight loss, lowers ‘bad' cholesterol and has been shown to protect against heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer," notes Dr. Wes Jones, a gastroenterologist and founder of the Cape Fear Center for Digestive Diseases in North Carolina.
Yet despite all the buzz, most Americans consume only half the recommended 25 to 30 grams of fiber they should eat every day, according to the USDA.
If you're one of them, it's time to add more fiber to your diet. But do it gradually to give your body time to adjust, advises Jones, author of Cure Constipation Now: A Doctor's Fiber Therapy to Cleanse and Heal. This will help you avoid bloating and other temporary side effects. Then, once your body has adjusted, follow these tips to get enough fiber in your diet every day.
At the Grocery Store
Read labels: Certain foods like grains and beans are naturally high in fiber, and many others have fiber added. Foods labeled "high fiber" contain 5 grams or more per serving. Those labeled "good source" of fiber have at least 2.5 grams per serving.
Opt for whole grains: Look for "whole grain flour" as the first ingredient listed on breads and pasta. Or try quinoa, bulgur, barley or brown rice.
Stock up on flax: One of the highest sources of fiber, flaxseed can be sprinkled on salads or yogurt and added to smoothies, sauces and soups. Ground flaxseed can be substituted for fat in some baked goods and gives any food a big burst of fiber.
Meal by Meal
Start the day right: Have a high-fiber cereal like shredded wheat or oatmeal. Top your breakfast with a tablespoon of flax plus fruit and nuts for a double dose of fiber.
Choose fruits and vegetables highest in fiber: Artichokes, broccoli, berries, figs, pears and apples -- along with many other fruits and vegetables -- have 5 or more grams of fiber per serving. Eat them alongside a whole-grain sandwich for a heart- and digestion-friendly midday meal.
Munch on fiber-rich snacks: Carrot and celery sticks with hummus or guacamole make a yummy pick-me-up, as do sliced apples with chunky peanut butter, dried fruit and nuts.
Load up on legumes: Peas, lentils, garbanzo beans and other legumes make tasty side dishes and are healthy additions to salads, soups and stews.
All plant-based foods contain fiber, but "not all types of high-fiber foods and fiber supplements behave in your gut the same way," says Jones.
To combat constipation, ease IBS, relieve heartburn or simply optimize your overall health, Jones recommends varying the types of fiber you eat by including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts in your diet throughout the day, every day.
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