Of course we don’t eat vitamins and minerals in isolation. These nutrients are packaged in whole foods that contain many other protective compounds. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and other plant foods provide dietary fiber and plant chemicals known as phytochemicals. These phytochemicals protect our health in many ways. Some act as antioxidants, others trigger enzymes that inactivate cancer-causing substances, and others boost the body’s immune system. Most importantly, scientists are learning every day that whole foods offer a package of nutrients and health-enhancing ingredients that likely work together to keep us healthy. More than 200 studies from around the world have shown that a diet plentiful in fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of many cancers, but this association has not been found when nutrients are consumed all by themselves. Here’s the bottom line: taking a pill is no substitute for the benefits of a diet containing a variety of nutritious foods.
Dietary fiber is actually made up of two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Both types are present in varying proportions in different plant foods, but some foods may be rich in one or the other. And the two types of fiber function differently in your body to promote health.
Soluble fibers, as their name suggests, dissolve in water. Dried peas, beans and lentils, oats, barley, psyllium husks, apples and citrus fruits are good sources of soluble fiber. When you consume these foods, the soluble fibers form a gel in your stomach and slow the rate of digestion and absorption.
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Foods like wheat bran, whole grains and some vegetables contain mainly insoluble fibers. Although these fibers do not dissolve in water, they do have a significant capacity for retaining water. in this way they act to increase stool bulk and promote regularity.
It’s estimated that Americans are getting 11 to 14 grams of fiber each day, only one-half of what is recommended. Experts agree that a daily intake of 25 grams of total dietary fiber is needed to reap its health benefits. To help you sneak more fiber into your diet, try the following:
• Eat a variety of foods every day to get the benefits of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
• Strive for five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Leave the peel on fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
• Eat at least five servings of whole-grain foods each day.
• Buy high-fiber breakfast cereals. Aim for at least 4 grams of fiber per serving. (Check the nutrition information panel.)
• Top your breakfast cereal with banana, berries or raisins.
• Add 2 tablespoons of natural wheat bran, oat bran or ground flaxseed to cereals, yogurt, casseroles and soup.
• Eat legumes more often—add white kidney beans to pasta sauce, black beans to tacos, chickpeas to salads, lentils to soup. Start with small portions to minimize gas.
• Add a few tablespoons of walnuts, soy nuts, sunflower seeds or raisins to salads.
• Reach for high-fiber snacks like popcorn, dried apricots or dates.
Fiber in Foods
FOOD FIBER (GRAMS)
100% bran cereal, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 10.0 g
Bran flakes, 3/4 cup (175 ml) 6.3 g
Grape-Nuts, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 6.0 g
Kellogg’s All-Bran Buds, 1/3 cup (75 ml) 13.0 g
Quaker Corn Bran, 1 cup (250 ml) 6.3 g
Oat bran, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 4.5 g
Oatmeal, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 3.6 g
Red River Cereal, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 4.8 g
Shredded Wheat, 1 biscuit (175 ml) 3.2 g
Bread and Other Grain Foods
pita pocket, whole wheat 4.8 g
Whole wheat bread, 100%, 2 slices 4.0 g
Spaghetti, whole wheat, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 4.8 g
Rice, brown, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 3.1 g
Wheat bran, 2 tbsp (30 ml) 2.4 g
Apple, 1 medium with skin 2.6 g
Apricots, dried, 1/4 cup (60 ml) 2.6 g
Banana, 1 medium 1.9 g
Blueberries, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 2.0 g
Figs, 5 dried 8.5 g
Orange, 1 medium 2.4 g
pear, 1 medium with skin 5.1 g
prunes, 3 dried 3.0 g
Raisins, seedless, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 2.8 g
Strawberries, 1 cup (250 ml) 3.8 g
Broccoli, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 2.0 g
Brussels sprouts, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 2.6 g
Carrots, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 2.2 g
Corn niblets, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 2.3 g
Green peas, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 3.7 g
Lima beans, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 3.8 g
Potato, 1 medium baked with skin 5.0 g
Sweet potato, 1/2 cup mashed (125 ml) 3.9 g
Legumes & Nuts
Almonds, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 8.2 g
Beans and tomato sauce, canned, 1 cup (250 ml) 20.7 g
Black beans, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 13.0 g
Chickpeas, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 6.1 g
Kidney beans, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 6.7 g
Lentils, 1 cup, cooked (250 ml) 9.0 g
Peanuts, dry roasted, 1/2 cup (125 ml) 6.9 g
Nutrient Values of Some Common Foods, Health Canada, Ottawa, 1999.
Use the list above to gradually add higher-fiber foods to your diet. Too much fiber too soon can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea. Spread fiber-rich foods out over the course of the day. And don’t forget that fiber needs fluid to work, so drink at least eight ounces of fluid with each high-fiber meal and snack.