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), gum (a sugar found in seeds), and psyllium ( from the husk of Plantago plants, its the only supplemental fiber shown to help lower LDL "bad" cholesterol).
Common manufactured fibers include 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.
Don’t overdo it. It’s possible to get too much fiber in your diet. Studies suggest that adding 50 or more grams per day may affect how your body absorbs nutrients. So be sure to think about how much fiber you get overall, from both diet and supplements, when figuring out how much you need.
Talk to your doctor about possible interactions between fiber supplements and any medicines you’re taking. Because fiber slows down digestion, it may decrease the rate at which some drugs are absorbed.
Several studies suggest you shouldn’t combine fiber with drugs that treat depression, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, seizures, and various heart ailments. Even common medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and penicillin can be affected by an increase in fiber. Your best bet: Take your meds either 1 hour before or 2 hours after eating fiber.