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Fiber, Fiber, Fiber

Fiber is an essential nutrient. Fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains all contain dietary fiber, a type of carbohydrate that provides minimal energy for the body. Although the body can't use fiber efficiently for fuel, it's an important part of a healthy eating plan and contributes to health and wellness in a number of ways:

>Heart disease: Fiber may help prevent heart disease by helping reduce cholesterol. >Weight management: Fiber slows the speed at which food passes from the stomach to the rest of the digestive system – this can make us feel full longer. Foods that are higher in dietary fiber often are lower in calories as well. >Diabetes: Because fiber slows down how quickly food is broken down, it may help control blood sugar levels for people with diabetes by reducing blood sugar levels after meals. >Digestive issues: Fiber increases bulk in the intestinal tract and may help improve the frequency of bowel movements, preventing constipation and diverticulosis.

The recommended amount of dietary fiber is 14 grams for every 1,000 calories per day, or, about 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men each day (or 21 and 30 grams daily, respectively, for those over the age of 50).

However, most Americans fall far short of the recommended daily amount in their diets. Fiber is found only in plant foods. Eating the skin or peel of fruits and vegetables provides a natural dose of fiber. Fiber also is found in beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Typically, the more refined or processed a food, the lower its fiber content. For example, one medium apple with the peel contains 4.4 grams of fiber, while ½ cup of applesauce contains 1.4 grams, and 4 ounces of apple juice contains no fiber.

With a few simple and tasty substitutions, you can increase your fiber from foods in no time.

>Choose steel cut oats with nuts and berries instead of a low-fiber, refined cereal. >Blend fruit into a smoothie or use it to top cereal, pancakes or desserts. >Have a sandwich or wrap on a whole-grain tortilla or whole-grain bread and add veggies, such as lettuce and tomato, or serve with veggie soup. >Toss beans into your next salad or soup >Have fresh veggies or whole- grain crackers with hummus. With dinner, try brown rice or whole-grain noodles instead of white rice or pasta made with white flour. >Mix in oats to meatloaf, bread or other baked goods.

Here are a few foods that are naturally high in fiber: >1 large pear with skin (7 grams) >1 cup fresh raspberries (8 grams) >½ medium avocado (5 grams) >1 ounce almonds (3.5 grams) >½ cup cooked black beans (7.5 grams) >3 cups air-popped popcorn (3.6 grams) >1 cup cooked pearled barley (6 grams)

When increasing fiber, be sure to do it gradually and with plenty of fluids. As dietary fiber travels through the digestive tract, is similar to a new sponge; it needs water to plump up and pass smoothly. If you consume more than your usual intake of fiber but not enough fluid, you may experience nausea or constipation.

Before you reach for the fiber supplements, consider this: fiber is found naturally in nutritious foods. Studies have found the same benefits, such as a feeling of fullness, may not result from fiber supplements or from fiber-enriched foods. If you're missing out on your daily amount of fiber, you may be lacking in other essential nutrients as well. Your fiber intake is a good gauge for overall diet quality. Try to reach your fiber goal with unrefined foods so you get all the other benefits they provide as well.

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