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Eat more fiber-rich foods to foster heart health

MAY 2014

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Most Americans don't get enough fiber in their diets. Here's why—and how—to add more to your daily fare.

The notion that a diet rich in fiber, particularly from whole-grain foods, could prevent heart disease risk dates back to the 1970s. Evidence to support that idea has been piling up ever since.

In 2002, the Institute of Medicine set recommendations for daily fiber intake. Up to age 50, men should eat 38 grams of fiber per day. After age 50, they should aim for 30 grams daily. The corresponding amounts for women are 25 and 21 grams. But most Americans fall woefully short of these goals, consuming only about 16 grams of fiber per day on average.

"As a country, we aren't eating enough fiber," says Dr. Cheryl Clark, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is the senior author of a recent study that confirmed the fiber shortfall in the American diet. The study also points to a connection with heart disease. People whose diets are high in fiber are less likely to have problems such as metabolic syndrome, which can be a precursor to diabetes. The condition, which is marked by too much belly fat, high triglycerides, low beneficial HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar, boosts a person's odds of developing diabetes, heart disease, and having a stroke.

Fiber: Different types and benefits

Fiber is a carbohydrate that your body can't break down, so it passes through the body undigested. It comes in two varieties: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains, wheat cereals, and vegetables such as carrots, celery, and tomatoes. Soluble fiber sources include barley, oatmeal, beans, nuts, and fruits such as apples, berries, citrus fruits, and pears. Both types have been linked to heart health.

Fiber's role in preventing heart disease is thought to stem from its ability to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. It also fills you up, which helps you eat less and perhaps lose weight.

Why haven't people jumped on the fiber bandwagon? "I think there's just not enough awareness about the benefits of fiber," says Dr. Clark. She suggests making an effort to put more fiber-rich foods on your shopping list and to bring easy-to-transport whole fruits or nuts with you to snack on when you're out and about.

Label lingo

A label can claim a food is a "good source" of fiber if it delivers 10% of your daily dose of fiber—about 2.5 grams per serving. The terms "rich in," "high in," or "an excellent source of" fiber are allowed if the product contains 5 or more grams of fiber per serving. Spooning up a bowl of high-fiber cereal is one of simplest ways to reach your fiber target. Look for brands with at least 6 grams of fiber per serving. Your best bet for bread? Look for the words "100% whole wheat" or "100% whole grain" on the label and at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.?

Sources of fiber

Food

Serving size

Fiber (grams)

CEREALS

Fiber One

1/2 cup

14

All-Bran

1/2 cup

10

Shredded Wheat

1 cup

6

Oatmeal (cooked)

1 cup

4

GRAINS

Barley (cooked)

1 cup

9

Brown rice (cooked)

 

4

BAKED GOODS

Whole-wheat bread

1 slice

3

Bran muffin

1

2

VEGETABLES

Spinach

1 cup (cooked)

4

Broccoli

1/2 cup

3

Brussels sprouts

1/2 cup

2

Carrots

1 medium

2

Green beans

1/2 cup

2

LEGUMES

Kidney beans (cooked)

1/2 cup (cooked)

6

Lima beans (cooked)

1/2 cup

6

Baked beans (canned)*

1/2 cup

5

FRUIT

Pear (with skin)

1 medium

6

Apple (with skin)

1 medium

4

Banana

1 medium

3

DRIED FRUITS

Prunes

6

12

Raisins

1/4 cup

2

NUTS AND SEEDS

Peanuts*

10

1

Popcorn*

1 cup

1

* Choose no-salt or low-salt version of these foods