You may not regard fiber as fun, but your digestive system does! Whole foods keep it humming along, running smoothly. Here’s why your body needs dietary fiber, plus tasty foods that relieve constipation.
Dietary fiber comprises plant parts that your body doesn’t fully break down. Two types are vital for your digestive health, soluble and insoluble, each with substantial benefits.
This class of fiber absorbs water and swells, becoming spongy. It softens waste, congeals stools, and lubricates your intestinal lining, facilitating evacuation.
Soluble fiber binds to fatty acids and flushes out cholesterol. By slowing sugar absorption, it regulates blood glucose. It also feeds “probiotics,” valuable bacteria that:
- help you digest food and assimilate its nutrients
- prompt fullness and inhibit fat absorption
- stimulate immune cells and suppress pathogens
When undigested food stalls in the small intestine, harmful bacteria tackle it, releasing toxins and gas. As food gradually lumbers to the colon, it loses moisture, hardens and becomes difficult to pass. Then, you’re at risk for the complications of constipation.
The antidote for sluggish digestion is insoluble fiber. Also termed “roughage,” it repels water, staying mostly intact. By bulking up stools, roughage exerts pressure against your intestinal walls. Such force prompts the muscle contractions known as “peristalsis,” efficiently moving waste through your colon. Roughage also sweeps toxins from your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Scientists report that a high-fiber diet reduces the risk of many diseases, such as breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and diverticulitis.
For optimal digestion, you need a specific quota of dietary fiber. The Institute of Medicine recommends these daily amounts, based on gender and age:
- men to age 50 – 38 grams
- men age 51+ – 30 grams
- women ages 18 to 50 – 25 grams
- women age 51+ – 21 grams
With all the processed food available in our country, many Americans fall short of the fiber mark, averaging 15 grams daily. Refining strips food of healthful roughage.
To reach your fiber goal, aim to eat 2½ cups of whole foods daily. Since they contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, there’s no need to tally grams separately. Just vary your sources, and you’ll build a champion fiber team!
Preferably, your fiber should come from food versus supplements. Pills and powders lack the nutrients concentrated in the skins, peels, hulls, and flesh of whole foods.
The following fiber sources are flavorful and nutritious. Each one is both a constipation cure and deterrent. Some foods may be new to you!
Resembling white carrots, parsnips are sweet and satisfying. In Europe, they were first used to sweeten food, pre-dating sugar cane. Parsnips provide 6 grams of fiber in a one-cup serving of cooked vegetable. Since they’re so filling, dieticians often recommend them as a weight loss aid.
Parsnips are packed with potassium and Vitamin C, even more than what carrots supply. While available year-round, peak season is from fall through early spring.
- Grate parsnips for salad, or sauté until tender. They’re also appetizing steamed, mashed, roasted, and added to soup.
Eating raw apples is a delicious way to obtain both types of fiber. Apple skin has the insoluble type. Pectin in apple flesh is water-soluble, forming a gel that binds to cholesterol. Pectin also steadies blood sugar and helps you feel full.
A medium-sized apple weighing 6 ounces has roughly 4 grams of fiber. Fresh apples also give you potassium, iron, and Vitamin C.
- Cut an apple into quarters, and sprinkle with cinnamon. Or, dip slices into low-fat yogurt.
Three cups of popped corn supply 3.5 grams of crunchy roughage, present in the waxy hulls. This grain is stoked with polyphenols, compounds that shield against cancer. Two tablespoons of kernels contain more polyphenols than apples.
However, avoid microwave and theater versions, with their constipating fat and harmful added ingredients. Instead, pop kernels on your stove-top or in a popcorn machine. Store-bought, pre-made is okay, provided it’s low in salt and fat.
- Feature popcorn rather than croutons in salad and soup. Or, dress kernels in savory herbs, such as oregano, tarragon, black pepper, and dill. Toss popcorn with nutritional yeast, for robust cheesy flavor. Moreover, two tablespoons of this low-fat food supply 8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber!
4. SWEET POTATOES
These colorful veggies have mostly insoluble fiber, with 4 grams in one medium-sized, 4-ounce spud. Manganese, a trace mineral, promotes digestion. An antioxidant in sweet potatoes coats intestinal walls with a protective layer, aiding the healing of stomach ulcers.
- Bake sweet potatoes, mash the flesh, and top with herbs. Remember to eat the skins!
A 2016 Korean study found that eating three figs daily gives significant relief to people with chronic constipation. Figs contain both types of bulk, primarily insoluble. Three dried figs yield 5 grams of fiber. This fruit also brims with B vitamins, helping you assimilate nutrients from food.
Sweet and chewy, this fruit is highly satisfying. Two varieties of dried figs are widely available. Black Mission has shiny, dark purple skin. Brown Turkey is honey-colored.
- Eat figs plain, or dip them in low-fat yogurt.
The bean family contributes a mega-dose of fiber – averaging 8 grams per ½ cup! Legumes contain both types of bulk. Those highest in fiber are lentils, lima beans, black-eyed peas, and kidney, pinto, black, navy, and white beans. With so many options, you can easily vary your meals with hearty flavor.
Beans tend to produce gas since we lack the enzyme to break down their carbs. However, you can improve digestion by soaking legumes overnight in water. Then, rinse them well, and cook in fresh water. Beans also become more digestible with a gradual increase in consumption. Start with ¼ cup twice weekly. After two weeks, increase to ½ cup, three times per week.
If you prefer the convenience of canned beans, rinse them thoroughly before eating. Empty them into a strainer, and run water through them for one minute. This practice removes added salt and some starchiness.
- Legumes lend chewy texture to soup. Complement their protein with corn, or pair them with an omelet.
Two substances in dried plums have a laxative effect, a sugar alcohol called “sorbitol” and a chemical in the skins. The potassium and Vitamin A in prunes activate digestive enzymes. Three prunes contain 4 grams of fiber.
Sorbitol isn’t well-digested, so to avoid excessive gas with prunes, use caution with quantity. If constipation is mild, eat four prunes. For a moderate to severe backlog, increase to seven.
- Stew prunes with carrots, add them chopped to yogurt, and stuff pitted prunes with almonds. Or nosh on them plain, as a healthy snack.
Keep constipation at bay with fibrous foods, such as parsnips, apples, popcorn, sweet potatoes, figs, legumes, and prunes.
To make the most of Team Fiber, be sure to drink adequate water. If you increase roughage without upping fluids, your colon will get clogged. Water lubricates the intestine and softens stool.
Body weight is a guide to water quota. To calculate the ideal amount, halve your weight, and convert the pounds to ounces. For example, a person weighing 160 pounds should drink 80 ounces of water daily.
The second key to success with fiber is increasing gradually. Add 5 grams per day, spread across your meals, until you reach the recommended amount.
If your game plan against constipation isn’t working, schedule an appointment with us. One of our digestive specialists will assess the reasons, and prescribe effective treatment. If you wish, our staff dietician can evaluate your nutritional needs, and customize a balanced eating plan.
Digestive Care Physicians has four convenient Atlanta locations, in Johns Creek, Cumming, Alpharetta, and Lawrenceville. We also care for residents from nearby towns, including Roswell, Marietta, Duluth, Milton, Canton, Suwanee, and Sandy Springs. To make an appointment, call us at (770) 227-2222.
With a savvy dietary strategy, you can be constipation-free!
Note: The information provided here cannot replace professional evaluation and treatment. For any troublesome GI symptoms, see an expert clinician at Digestive Care Physicians.
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