If you struggle to maintain a healthy body weight, have high cholesterol levels or are affected by irregular bowels, dietary fiber may be an important part of the cure for what ails you. In addition to reducing your risk of heart disease and diabetes, a high-fiber diet can go a long way in treating and preventing chronic constipation. Getting too much of a good thing, however, can leave you feeling a bit stopped-up – at least temporarily.
You generally get two distinct kinds of fiber from every fruit, vegetable, whole grain or other fiber-containing food you eat. Water dissolves soluble fiber into a gummy substance that slows the rate at which digested food leaves your stomach. This action delays the onset of hunger and helps keep your blood sugar relatively steady. Soluble fiber also helps your body excrete bile acids, which is how it promotes healthy cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber, which absorbs water, moves waste through your intestinal tract more quickly and helps produce large, soft stools that are easy to pass.
Fiber and water work hand-in-hand. Whether you’re increasing your fiber intake or already getting the recommended amount, your fluid intake should match your fiber status. A high-fiber diet actually has the opposite effect on your digestive system when you’re not adequately hydrated. Instead of facilitating digestion, “dry” fiber binds your bowels and can cause bloating, cramping and constipation. So how much fluid do you need? Since the water in fruits, vegetables and other foods counts toward your total intake, you can generally meet the rest of your body’s requirements and support a high-fiber diet by drinking eight to 10 glasses of water each day.
The amount of fiber you need is determined by the number of calories in your diet – you should aim to get about 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you consume. This amounts to about 25 grams of fiber a day for most women younger than 50, according to the American Dietetic Association. Considering that most adults in the United States get just 15 grams of fiber a day, recommended intake levels might strike the average American as being too high. Although it’s normal to experience some digestive discomfort as you boost your fiber intake, you can minimize these effects by gradually increasing the amount of fiber – and fluid – in your diet over the course of several weeks.
You probably won’t get too much fiber from your diet unless you eat large quantities of bran or high-fiber cereal. People who consume excessive amounts of fiber – or more than about 50 grams a day, according to the American Dietetic Association – can experience constipation, but are far more likely to suffer from intestinal gas and chronic diarrhea. An unnecessarily high fiber intake can also prevent your body from absorbing several important nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. You can keep your fiber intake under control but still reasonably high by getting your fiber from natural food sources and avoiding high-fiber supplements.
- National Fiber Council: Health Benefits of Dietary Fiber
- National Fiber Council: Your Digestive System
- MedlinePlus: Fluids May Prevent Constipation Better Than Fiber
- Continuum Health Partners: Dietary Fiber & Bowel Function
- UCSF Medical Center: Fiber and Digestive Problems
- American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide; Roberta Larson Duyff, M.S., R.D.
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