Is your diet short on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? If so, you may not be getting all the fiber you need -- raising your risks for weight gain, heart disease, and cancer.
Though the symptoms of a fiber-poor diet aren't always clear-cut, there are four key warning signs to watch for:
: If you're having fewer than three bowel movements a week, and the stools are hard and dry, you're constipated. Constipation can result from lack of fiber, but also from too little exercise and certain medications and supplements.
Prevention: If your constipation is diet-related, try adding more fiber-rich foods such as apples, raspberries, carrots, broccoli, or whole grains to your diet.
Boosting your fiber intake can help form soft, bulky stools, relieving and preventing constipation. Be sure to add fiber slowly so your body gets used to it. And help yourself stay regular by drinking plenty of fluids and exercising regularly.
Weight Gain: "Fiber contributes to satiety," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD. Satiety is that feeling of comfortable fullness you get after a meal. If you're not experiencing that feeling, Zelman says you may be eating more than your body needs.
Prevention: Try meeting the recommended goal of 25 to 35 grams of fiber daily by enjoying fiber-filled foods like fresh fruit, whole grains, and seasonal vegetables. Choose the fiber-rich foods you like best; you're more likely to eat favorites often.
Blood Sugar Fluctuations: If you have diabetes and find controlling your blood sugar difficult, talk to your doctor: you may not be getting enough fiber.
Prevention: Because fiber delays the absorption of sugar, helping you control blood sugar levels, try adding more fresh produce, beans and peas, brown rice, and other high-fiber foods to your diet. Remember to discuss any change in your diabetes management plan with your doctor.
Diet-Related Nausea & Tiredness: Getting most of your calories from a high-protein/low-carbohydrate diet -- one rich in meat, eggs, and cheese and low in produce -- may lead not only to a rise in cholesterol, but also leave you nauseous, tired, and weak.
Prevention: Try boosting your dietary fiber with the vitamin- and mineral-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables your body needs, and cut back on fatty foods.
Fiber May Foil Disease — and Relieve Chronic Conditions
A high-fiber diet not only helps you feel satiated and aids your digestion, but evidence suggests it's also a powerful disease fighter. Fiber may reduce your risk for illness, including:
High Cholesterol/Heart Disease: Studies show that a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in produce and whole grains can lower blood cholesterol by 0.5% to 2% for every gram of soluble fiber eaten daily.
That's because soluble fiber binds to dietary cholesterol, helping to eliminate it from the digestive system. This in turn lowers blood cholesterol, which reduces cholesterol deposits in the arteries. Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance. Sources of soluble fiber are oats, legumes (beans, peas, and soybeans), apples, bananas, berries, barley, some vegetables, and psylluim.
Diabetes: Fiber not only helps with diabetes management, but it may also be a powerful preventative.
Studies suggest that a diet rich in cereal fiber may reduce your risk for diabetes by 28%. By contrast, research shows that a high-sugar, low-fiber diet can more than double a woman's risk of contracting type 2 diabetes.
Cancer: About one-third of cancer deaths may be diet-related, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Research has shown, however, that diets low in fat and high in fiber-rich foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables may reduce the risk of some cancers, including those of the colon and rectum.
Hemorrhoids, swollen veins near the anus and lower rectum, can develop when pushing or straining to have a bowel movement.
Eating a high-fiber diet packed with produce and whole grains, and drinking plenty of liquids, can help prevent and relieve hemorrhoids by keeping stools soft so they pass through the digestive systems more easily. (Remember to consult your doctor if you have blood in your stools or bleeding from your rectum. These may be signs of a more serious condition.)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): With IBS, the nerves and muscles in the large intestine are extra-sensitive to certain foods -- or lack of them -- resulting in cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.
Though IBS has no cure, symptom relief can be found through medicine, stress reduction, and by avoiding triggers such as fatty foods, alcohol, and carbonated beverages. Fiber, like that in bran, whole grains, and produce, reduces IBS symptoms -- especially constipation -- by making stools soft, bulky, and easier to pass.
A powerhouse nutrient like fiber can help you manage your weight, avoid disease, and relieve chronic conditions.
But when you're ready to give your diet a fiber boost -- and have talked with your doctor about your plans -- take it slowly. Too much fiber too fast can cause cramps, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Prevent those problems by adding just a few grams of fiber at a time. Get into the habit of drinking a minimum of 2 cups of a calorie-free beverage between each meal and to help avoid any problems.