It's the food that helps you feel full with just a few calories and is good enough at lowering cholesterol to earn a heart-healthy claim from the Food and Drug Administration. Take another look at fiber, a natural ingredient in berries, beans and bran that deserves a central place in any healthy diet.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which provide a blueprint for healthful eating and activity, recommend consuming a variety of fruit, vegetables and whole-grain products daily. Not only do foods such as this help your digestive system, they also generally have few calories and quickly fill you up so you don't overeat. They're also rich sources of vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. Plus, they're generally low in fat and provide energy through complex carbohydrates, which increase blood sugar levels slowly and more evenly, resulting in less need for insulin than refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods.
For these and other reasons, the National Cancer Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Heart Assn. also recommend eating plenty of fiber-rich foods daily.
Need more of an incentive? Studies suggest fiber may help reduce the risk of obesity and may, in conjunction with a low-fat diet, help control high blood pressure. Soluble fiber--think oatmeal--helps whisk cholesterol from the blood. Insoluble fiber--think bran and other whole grains--helps move food more quickly through the intestine and appears to help prevent the initial occurrence of colorectal cancer.
There are limits to fiber's magic, however. Two recent, large clinical trials found that a high-fiber diet did not prevent the recurrence of colon polyps.
In choosing fiber sources, the real McCoy is generally better. There's no evidence that taking fiber supplements such as Benefiber or Metamucil provides the same wide-ranging health benefits as eating a variety of high-fiber foods, which also contain a slew of healthful phytonutrients.
Depending on your current diet, you may need to work a little to meet the recommended 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day. But if you're willing to add beans and whole-fiber cereal to your daily intake, it's not tough to reach the goal. Here's what you need to know:
* Read the fine print. A package of multigrain JJ Flats Breadflats lists unbleached, enriched wheat flour as the first ingredient. But scan the nutrition facts label and you'll learn that one serving has less than a gram of dietary fiber--no better than a saltine. That's because wheat flour, enriched flour and degerminated corn meal are not whole grains. Aim instead for products that list whole wheat, whole cornmeal, whole oats, whole rye, cracked wheat, whole barley, bulgur, brown rice, popcorn, oatmeal or graham flour as the first label ingredients.
* Breakfast like a whole-fiber champion with whole-grain cereals. Just eating a bowl of the right cereal can get you halfway to your daily goal. Half a cup of General Mills Fiber One has 14 grams of fiber. Eat a cup of Kellogg's Raisin Bran, Post's 100 Percent Bran or Post's Shredded Wheat 'N Bran and you'll get 8 grams of fiber--eight times the amount found in the same amount of corn flakes. Can't stomach a whole bowl of high-fiber bran cereals? Mix one-quarter cup on top of your regular cereal for a fiber boost. And don't forget oatmeal. About one cup of cooked oatmeal will give you 2 grams of soluble fiber and two grams of insoluble fiber.
* Reach for the beans. They're loaded with fiber, up to 17 grams per cup, another boost toward that daily goal. A few good options: hummus, a Middle Eastern favorite made from garbanzo beans (6 grams of fiber per half-cup); baked beans (6.5 grams per half-cup) or a bean burrito (about 6 to 8 grams of fiber) with a corn tortilla (for an extra gram of fiber).
* Eat a baked potato. A medium baked potato with the skin provides 5 grams of fiber.
* Switch from white bread to whole wheat. Just that one change alone will give you up to 2 grams more fiber per slice.
* Snack on berries. A cup of raspberries (8 grams of fiber) has four times more than a slice of whole-wheat bread. Blackberries are a close second, with 7 grams per cup.
* Rate your fiber intake. Log on to the American Institute for Cancer Research Web site at aicr.donortrust.com/include/BookformReadOnline/fiberfacts.htm.