When we think about following a healthy diet, we often fixate on what we shouldn't be eating, such as sugary desserts and fatty fried foods. A better strategy may be to focus on what we should be eating — especially more foods naturally rich in fiber.
Even though fiber passes through our bodies without being digested, it provides many health benefits, particularly for the heart. Fiber-rich diets may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by as much as 30%, according to a review article in the February 2 issue of The Lancet.
“Fiber's health benefits — which include reductions in cholesterol, blood pressure, and body weight...”
The findings, gleaned from four decades' worth of research, emphasize the importance of eating lots of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, says Dr. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But the clearest and most consistent evidence for fiber's cardiovascular benefits relates to eating whole grains such as whole wheat and oats, according to earlier research by Dr. Willett and colleagues.
Fiber: Varieties and sources
Fiber, which is considered a carbohydrate, comes in two forms: insoluble (which helps you feel full and encourages regular bowel movements) and soluble (which helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar). Fiber-containing foods usually feature a mix of the two, but whole grains, wheat cereals, and vegetables such as carrots, celery, and tomatoes contain mainly insoluble fiber. Good sources of soluble fiber include barley, oatmeal, beans, nuts, and fruits such as apples, berries, citrus fruits, and pears.
Fiber's health benefits — which include reductions in cholesterol, blood pressure, and body weight — were apparent at levels of at least 25 to 29 grams of fiber a day, according to the Lancet article. The average American consumes only about 15 to 16 grams of fiber daily. For inspiration for adding more fiber to your diet, see the sample menu (right), which follows the principles of the heart-friendly Mediterranean diet and provides 30.5 grams of fiber.