You may have heard that you should increase your dietary fiber, but you may not know why a high-fiber diet is so important. Getting enough fiber may help protect you from developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and constipation. Be aware that many other diet, lifestyle and other factors influence your health, and always consult your doctor about any health concerns you may have.
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Dietary fiber comes from the parts of plant foods that your body cannot digest. Instead, bacteria in your colon may digest it. According to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), good sources of fiber include fruit, vegetables, and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils. Many whole grains such as oatmeal, whole wheat and barley also provide fiber, and you can read the nutrition information on breakfast cereal packages to choose good sources.
HSPH states that fiber is likely to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease. Dietary fiber may prevent heart disease by reducing your risk for metabolic syndrome, a cause of heart disease that includes symptoms such as hypertension, low levels of good HDL cholesterol in your blood and high blood triglycerides. High levels of bad LDL cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk for heart disease. MayoClinic.com notes that soluble fiber may lower your cholesterol levels. Oats, legumes and berries are good sources of soluble fiber. If you do have risk factors for heart disease, be sure to consult your doctor.
According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, obesity increases your risk for chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes. To maintain a healthy weight, you need to balance the calories you eat with the calories you burn, and you can prevent gradual weight gain by decreasing your calories. A high-fiber diet may be able to help you manage your weight because fiber slows down digestion so that you are less hungry for the next meal.
A diet high in fiber may reduce the risk for certain gastrointestinal disorders. HSPH states that dietary fiber may help prevent constipation, which is a common complaint in the U.S. Fiber acts as a laxative by increasing your stool bulk and making it softer. If you get enough fiber, you may also reduce the risk of developing hemorrhoids and diverticular disease in your large intestine. Many factors besides fiber intake contribute to bowel health, so you should talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
If you are trying to achieve a diet high in fiber, you should be aware of the recommendations for fiber intake. HSPH recommends a minimum of 20 g per day. When you increase your fiber intake, increase your water intake, too, to prevent constipation. Also, remember to increase your fiber intake only gradually to reduce possible effects such as cramping, bloating or diarrhea. In addition, talk to your doctor before making significant dietary changes.