Tips for Adding Fiber to Your Diet

Health, Home & Family
on May 25, 2008


Fiber has numerous health benefits, including protection against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity, but its best known for promoting healthy digestion and bowel regularity.

Fiber really acts as the bodys broom, making sure that things sweep through the way that they should, says Leslie Bonci, a dietitian and author of the American Dietetic Association Guide to Better Digestion. Because fiberthe indigestible parts of vegetables, fruits and grainshelps food move more quickly through the digestive system and attracts water to the lower intestine, it helps preventand relieveconstipation.

Most Americans get only about half of the fiber they need. The recommended daily allowance for women is 25 grams for those under age 50, and 21 grams for women over 50. Young men should get 38 grams, while men over 50 need 30 grams.

If you want to add fiber to your diet, its important to start slowly in order to avoid uncomfortable side effects such as gas. Bonci recommends adding no more than 5 extra grams of fiber to the daily diet, then waiting a week or two until the body adjusts before adding another 5 grams, until you reach the recommended daily allowance. For every 5 grams of extra fiber, add 8 to 12 ounces of liquid to the diet, she advises.

If somebody dramatically increases their fiber intake without making changes to their fluid intake, they usually end up feeling very bloated and kind of gassy, and, more often than not, more constipated, Bonci says.

Good sources of fiber include beans, lentils, bran, whole-grain cereals, pears, nuts and seeds. If you have difficulty getting enough fiber from foods, your doctor may recommend a fiber supplement.


Most people dont give much thought to their digestive system, unless it isnt running smoothly. Then it demands attention, as anyone whos ever experienced gas, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea or other gastrointestinal ailments knows.

Digestive disorders can be uncomfortable, embarrassing, painful and even debilitating. Fortunately, by taking simple steps you can promote processing of the food you eat and relieve the symptoms of many common digestive problems.

For the most part, good digestion is a matter of what, when and how we eat, says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, a dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson. Improving your digestion can help your body get the nutrients it needs.

The digestive system, also called the gastrointestinal tract, is a tube more than 27 feet long. It includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines and other organs that help the body break down food, absorb nutrients and remove waste products.

Here are some ways to help keep this vitally important system in good working order.

Choose foods wisely. A well balanced diet helps with digestion, helps with weight control and helps with bowel movements, says Dr. Howard Kroop, a gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. You want to incorporate enough fluid in your diet, and enough fiber, whether its from grains or fruits and vegetables.

Fiber helps move food and toxins through the intestines quickly. High-fat foods can slow digestion, which may cause discomfort. Gazzaniga-Moloo advises eating low-fat, fiber-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains to promote digestion and good health. Meagan Douglass, 35, of Maple Valley, Wash. (pop. 14,209), says eating a healthful diet helps her avoid the sometimes debilitating symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition affecting as many as one in five American adults that can include alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation, as well as abdominal pain, bloating and gas.

If I eat a balanced diet loaded with fruits and veggies, exercise daily, take Metamucil (for fiber), and drink at least five glasses of water a day, I can help prevent constipation, she says. To help avoid getting diarrhea, Douglass limits her consumption of ice cream and other dairy products.

If I eat fast food or greasy food, its almost a guarantee that Ill have IBS, she adds. If I eat my vegetables and a balanced diet, then Ill be just fine.

Moderate meals. Eating smaller, more frequent meals can improve digestion, Gazzaniga-Moloo says. Avoiding large meals before bedtime can help prevent heartburn.

Slow down. Taking your time and relaxing during mealtime has multiple benefits. Thoroughly chewing food creates smaller particles that are easier for the body to digest. Taking your time helps you digest your food, youll enjoy it more and youll probably eat smaller portionsyou wont just wolf things down without contemplating what youre eating and how much youre eating, Kroop says.

Control stress. Stress can impair digestion, stimulating the large intestine and triggering symptoms of IBS. Douglass says controlling stress is an important part of managing her condition, so she meditates, practices deep breathing and yoga, and tries to avoid upsetting situations.

When I dont do yoga, or if I dont exercise, I can tell a huge difference in my body, she adds. I actually feel bloated or gassy. But I can get really super-stressed out, and not have IBS if I do my meditation, yoga and eat right.

Avoid troublesome foods. As many as 50 million Americans have lactose intolerance, the inability to digest milk sugar, which can cause nausea, cramps, bloating, gas and diarrhea. Another food-related digestive condition is celiac disease, an immune system response to the gluten in wheat and other grains. Both conditions can be managed by avoiding the offending foods.

David Lynch, 49, of Asheville, N.C., spent years suffering from stomach cramps, poor digestion, diarrhea and muscle pain before he was diagnosed with food sensitivities. The symptoms escalated in my mid-40s to the point where cramps would last 12 to 24 hours and incapacitate me, he says.

A nutritionist tested him for food allergies and prescribed a diet to determine his problem foods, which include wheat, cows milk, eggs, beans and peanuts. Lynchs health improved dramatically when he stopped eating those foods. It was like emerging from a cocoon, he says. My physical symptoms practically disappeared.

Lynchs nutritionist, Liz Lipski, author of the book Digestive Wellness, advises her clients to stop eating sugar, processed foods, dairy, wheat and soy foods for a period of time, to see if their symptoms improve. I tell them to eat fruits and vegetables and poultry and fish and rice for a couple of weeks. Its amazing what you see, she says.

Some digestive disorders are more serious than an occasional bout of indigestion or diarrhea and may warrant a trip to the doctor. In general, you should see a doctor if you have blood in your stool, a change in bowel habits, severe abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss or persistent heartburn.