Fiber is the general name for certain carbohydrates -- usually parts of vegetables, plants, and grains -- that the body can't fully digest. While fiber isn't broken down and absorbed like nutrients, it still plays a key role in good health.
There are two main types of fiber. They are soluble fiber (which dissolves in water) and insoluble fiber (which does not). Combined, they're called total fiber.
Why do people take fiber?
A number of studies have found that a high intake of total fiber, from foods and supplements, lowers the risk of heart disease. High-fiber diets have also been associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stools. It helps treat constipation and diverticular disease and may benefit people with some types of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Some studies seem to show that insoluble fiber can reduce the risk of colon cancer. However, larger and more recent studies have shown no benefit.
Soluble fiber seems to lower cholesterol levels. It binds with cholesterol in the intestines and prevents it from being absorbed. Soluble fiber may also be useful in treating diabetes and insulin resistance (prediabetes). It can slow the absorption of carbohydrates, helping to improve blood sugar levels.
Since fiber is filling and has very few calories, high-fiber foods may also help with weight loss.
How much fiber should you take?
Fiber that comes from whole foods is called dietary fiber. Fiber that's sold in supplements, or added to fortified foods, is called functional fiber. The Institute of Medicine has set an adequate intake (AI) for total fiber, which includes all sources. Getting this amount of fiber should be enough to stay healthy. Doctors may recommend higher doses of fiber.
Adequate Intake (AI)
|1-3 years||19 g/day|
|4-8 years||25 g/day|
|9-18 years||26 g/day|
|19-50 years||25 g/day|
|51 years and up||21 g/day|
|9-13 years||31 g/day|
|14-50 years||38 g/day|
|51 years and up||30 g/day|
Even in high amounts, fiber appears to be safe. Experts have not discovered an amount of fiber that's harmful.
Can you get fiber naturally from foods?
Most people in the U.S. take in much less fiber than they should. The best way to get it is from food, like a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Some good sources of soluble fiber include:
- Oatmeal and oat bran
- Apples, citrus fruits, and strawberries
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Rice bran
And some sources of insoluble fiber are:
- Cereal brans
- Whole grains, like barley
- Whole-wheat breads, wheat cereals, and wheat bran
- Vegetables like carrots, cabbage, beets, and cauliflower
Some foods, like nuts, contain both soluble and insoluble fiber.
What are the risks of taking fiber?
- Side effects. Fiber does not have serious side effects. At high levels, it can cause bloating, cramping, gas, and perhaps worsening constipation. Drinking more water -- 2 liters a day -- may help.
- Interactions. If you take any regular medications, talk to a doctor before you start using a fiber supplement. It may block the absorption of some drugs.
- Risks. Rarely, fiber supplements have caused intestinal blockages. If you have any chronic disease, talk to a doctor before you start using a fiber supplement. The sugar and salt in some supplements, particularly powders, might be risky for people with diabetes or high blood pressure. People with diabetes may want to choose a sugar-free powder or another form of fiber. Blond psyllium is the most common type of fiber supplement on the market.