Fiber is recognized as an important part of the human diet and it is documented that people who ate fiber-rich diets were 80 percent more likely to live longer and stay healthier than those who did not. Unfortunately, Americans consume about one-third to one-half less than the government dietary guidelines.

Fiber is a carbohydrate found in plant foods: beans, fruits, grains, nuts and vegetables. Technically, it isn’t a nutrient because it isn’t broken down and absorbed. That is exactly why it is so beneficial. There are essentially two broad categories of fiber: soluble and insoluble.

1. Soluble fiber is soft and dissolves in water, forming a gel-like substance. It bulks up the stool, making it easier to pass. Sources include beans, oats, sweet potatoes and the flesh of some fruits.

2. Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains, vegetables and fruit skin. These fibers promote contractions of the digestive tract that move food and waste through the body.

Many plant foods contain both kinds of fiber.

These fibers can have a powerful effect on health and longevity. Soluble fiber binds to bile acids, which are produced by the liver to aid in digestion and fat absorption, and helps the body to excrete them. When the soluble fiber has helped eliminate the bile acids, the body has to produce more and it pulls cholesterol from the blood and thereby lowers cholesterol. This includes both total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Fiber helps to prevent diabetes as eating a food that is high in fiber slows the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream and the pancreas has more time to react and produce insulin.

As fiber adds bulk, it makes people feel full faster and stay full longer. Also many high-fiber foods are low in calories.

Another important benefit from fiber is it supports good bacteria in the gut. Because fiber doesn’t digest, it ferments and this fermented material supplies food to help those good bacteria multiply and thrive. We are just beginning to understand the far reaching health benefits of these good bacteria in making the immune system stronger and helping to control inflammation.

Getting fiber from foods naturally rich in fiber is the best way. If one plans to increase the amount of fiber they eat, it is best to start slowly and drink plenty of water. Good sources of fiber is bran and is found in all cereal grains, wheat, oats, rice and corn. There are several foods high in fiber such as the “P” foods: pears, peaches, prunes, peas, and plums. Then there are the “B” foods: beans, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

The American Heart Association recommends eating 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed. For children ages 1-3, this is about 19 grams of fiber, for ages 4-8, it is about 25 grams per day. Another way to calculate how much fiber is your child’s age plus 5 for the grams of fiber.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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