You probably know that fiber is an important ingredient for a healthy diet. But if you’re like most Americans, you aren’t getting nearly enough of it.
Though it’s best known as the nutrient that helps keep you regular, fiber has other major health benefits. That’s why doctors and nutritionists are urging people to prioritize it.
“I always joke that fiber is my favorite f-word,” says Caroline Susie, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A fiber-rich diet can help with weight management, blood sugar regulation, and cholesterol and blood pressure levels, she points out—all of which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death among U.S. adults.
People who consumed the highest amount of fiber were 15% to 30% less likely to die from cardiovascular-related events compared to those who ate the lowest amount, according to a 2019 meta-analysis published in The Lancet. And an older study published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke found that a person’s first-time stroke risk dropped by 7% for every 7-gram fiber increase in their daily diet.
Aside from reducing disease risk, adequate fiber intake can improve your quality of life through better gastrointestinal health and improved energy levels, Dr. Mona Bahouth, stroke neurologist and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, tells Fortune. “A balanced diet including healthy fiber has the potential to influence long-term wellness and brain health for all,” she says.
Here’s what you need to know to transition to a high-fiber diet.
What is fiber?
Fiber is a carbohydrate found in plant-based foods that can’t be completely digested by the body. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. They’re found in different sources, but both are good for you and serve similar functions in your body.
- Soluble fiber can be dissolved in water and helps stabilize blood sugar and reduce cholesterol. It’s found in beans, avocado, and pears.
- Insoluble fiber cannot be dissolved in water and helps move food along the digestive tract; it can prevent or relieve constipation. Insoluble fiber is found in whole wheat flour, cauliflower, and potatoes.
How much fiber do I need?
Only 5% of Americans are getting enough fiber, studies show. Most of us are falling far short, consuming only around 10 to 15 grams a day.
The American Heart Association recommends most adults get at least 25 grams of fiber daily—that’s about 8 to 10 grams per meal.
These guidelines don’t account for body differences like height and weight or health history, but your doctor or nutritionist can help you determine the right amount of fiber for you.
What are some high-fiber foods?
Food groups that are high in fiber include legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Here are some high-fiber favorites Susie recommends:
- Fresh fruits like strawberries, oranges, blueberries, apples, and pears with skin
- Fresh vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green peas, and potatoes with skin
- Split peas
- Chia seeds
Should I take fiber supplements?
There are dozens of fiber supplements on the market. But Bahouth says it’s better to reach for whole foods. Studies have shown that supplements may not offer the same benefits, like the feeling of fullness that comes from eating fiber-rich foods. Supplements may also be missing vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that come from food—and such supplements may also cause gas and bloating.
Still, there are some situations in which supplements might be helpful. “Be sure to talk to your doctor before you begin a fiber supplement, as there could be an interaction with certain medications,” Susie cautions.
How can I add more fiber into my diet without supplements?
Here are three simple ways to add more fiber to your diet, according to Susie:
- For breakfast: Add 1 tbsp chia seeds to your yogurt (10 additional grams of fiber).
- For lunch: Add 1/2 cup green peas to your salad (4.5 additional grams of fiber).
- For snack: Add in 1 cup of berries (8 additional grams of fiber).
“That is 22.5 grams of fiber on top of what you are already consuming, and all before dinner,” she says.
How quickly should I increase my fiber intake?
When increasing your fiber intake, go slow—you’ll want to give your body a chance to adapt. “Adding too much fiber too quickly can lead to gastric distress (gas, bloating, and cramping),” Susie advises.
Try adding just one more daily serving of a fiber-rich food to your diet for a week or two. If you feel OK, add another daily serving for a week until you reach your goal. “Increase your water intake as you increase your fiber intake,” she recommends. “Fiber works best when it absorbs water. This will help for a more comfortable experience in the bathroom.”