Fiber offers you a range of health perks. It can lower cholesterol, keep your blood sugar steady, and help you lose weight. Still, most Americans don’t come anywhere close to getting enough of this essential nutrient.
If you want to get more, supplements might seem like a good, easy idea. But before you head to the drugstore checkout line, there are some things you should know.
Food vs. Supplements
For most people, especially those who want to take advantage of fiber’s heart-protective properties, it’s best to get fiber from foods. You can find it in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
“You don’t need [supplements] at all,” says cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, director of women's heart health at the Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital.
And taking supplements won’t make up for poor eating habits.
“You can’t take an unhealthy diet and put in supplements and it all the sudden becomes a healthy diet,” says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a clinical associate professor at Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
It’s unclear whether the fiber found in supplements or fortified foods gives the same health benefits as naturally occurring sources. Because of this, most fiber supplements are aimed at preventing constipation rather than, say, lowering cholesterol.
Types of Fiber Supplements
If you want to use them, experts recommend you talk with your doctor first to figure out which type is right for you.
They come in many forms, from capsules to powders to chewable tablets. They contain what’s called “functional fiber,” which may be extracted from natural sources or made in a lab.
Extracted natural fibers include lignin (a compound found in plant cells), cellulose (a sugar found in plant cells), pectin (a sugar found in fruits and berries), and gum (a sugar found in seeds).
Common manufactured fibers include psyllium (the only supplemental fiber shown to help lower LDL "bad" cholesterol), polydextrose and polyols, and maltodextrins.
Use Supplements Safely
Go slow. If you add a lot of fiber to your diet too quickly, it can cause some uncomfortable side effects, like bloating, cramping, and gas. Experts recommend you gradually build up how much you take. It also helps to take supplements with a large glass of water and stay hydrated throughout the day.