Staying Young Inside and Out
It's hard to admit sometimes, but it's starting to look like Mom really did know best. Okay, so maybe that haircut she forced you to get in the sixth grade wasn't exactly cool. But just about everything else she made you do was right on the money. Like when she had you start your day with oatmeal. And when she filled a corner of your dinner plate with cooked carrots and told you to have an apple instead of a brownie for dessert.
Today, science has proven what Mom always said: There's something special about fruits, vegetables and grains that really does a woman's body good. She called it roughage. Nutritionists call it dietary fiber, and it's one of the simplest and most potent weapons we have in our age-erasing arsenal.
Fiber is a front-line warrior in the battle against heart disease, breast and other cancers, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, constipation, digestive problems, diabetes and even overweight. Get enough fiber and your body will be healthier and run like a well-oiled machine.
But most women don't get enough fiber. The recommended intake is 25 grams of fiber every day. "Most Americans, however, only consume about one-third of that total," says Diane Grabowski, R.D., nutrition educator at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, California.
Fiber is a complex mixture of indigestible substances that makes up the structural material of plants. It has very few calories and provides little food energy to the body. When we ingest it, it passes through our system without being broken down.
Fiber works its magic by carrying the bad stuff--like cholesterol, bile acids and other toxins--out of our system. And it comes in two basic forms: soluble, which dissolves in water, and insoluble, which doesn't. Most plant foods contain both types of fiber, though certain foods are richer in one or the other.
The coarser, insoluble fibers really live up to the word roughage. "They literally scour you out," says David Jenkins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Center at St. Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto. "Once inside the body they absorb water, making stools softer, bulkier and easier to pass. This keeps food moving through the intestinal tract."
It also makes a natural remedy for such ills as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulosis and hemorrhoids.
Soluble fibers act differently. Inside the body they become gummy and sticky. As they move through the digestive tract, they pick up bile acids and other toxins, then haul them out of the body.
Squaring Off against Disease
Fiber plays a vital role in the offensive against heart disease and atherosclerosis. Studies have shown that a diet high in soluble fiber reduces blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol. A study by Dr. Jenkins found that high intakes of soluble fiber continued to lower cholesterol even after dietary reductions of fat and cholesterol had been achieved.
"Cholesterol builds up in our blood and clogs arteries if it is not excreted as bile acids from our digestive tract," says Dr. Jenkins. "When soluble fiber carries these substances out of the body, it draws cholesterol out of the bloodstream to be converted into more bile, which we continue to flush out of the body--as long as we regularly consume soluble fiber."
Other studies have shown that fiber is effective at lowering blood pressure, thereby reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
That's not all fiber can do. Insoluble fiber is believed by doctors to be a key in preventing breast cancer, the most common cancer among women. How? By reducing estrogen levels. High levels of estrogen raise your risk of breast cancer.
A high-fiber diet also appears to lower your risk for colon and rectal cancer. It does this by diluting the concentration of bile acids and other carcinogens and moving stools quickly through the intestines, decreasing the time the colon wall is in contact with carcinogens. Also, fiber increases the acidity of the colon, making it less hospitable to cancer-causing toxins.
Fiber can also help you better manage diabetes by controlling blood sugar and thus reducing the need for insulin. Fiber delays the emptying of the stomach, causing the sugars in your food to be absorbed more gradually.
A fiber-filled diet makes weight loss a lot easier, too, because it fills you up--meaning you're going to eat a lot less of those fat-laden foods that put on the pounds. Fibrous foods provide robust mouthfuls that must be chewed thoroughly, slowing down your eating time. And they tend to have fewer calories in every bite.
Bran: Where to Find a Lot of It
One sure-fire way to get a heap of fiber into your diet is by eating bran, the coarse outer layers of oats, wheat, rice and corn that contain the highest concentrations of fiber.
Consider oat bran, the bran that has received the most public attention in recent years. "What sets oat bran apart from other brans is that it is extremely high in a fiber called beta-glucan," says bran researcher Michael H. Davidson, M.D., medical director of the Chicago Center for Clinical Research at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital. "Beta glucan appears to be far more effective than other soluble fibers in lowering blood cholesterol levels."
How effective? Just two ounces of oat bran per day (a medium-size bowl) is enough to lower your LDL cholesterol 10 to 15 percent. The catch is that you have to eat oat bran daily; otherwise your cholesterol levels will creep back up.
Wheat bran is jam-packed with insoluble fiber, so it's the bran of choice for people with digestive problems. This is probably the most common bran, found in most bran breakfast cereals and all whole-wheat products.
Rice, oat and corn bran are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Unless your physician says otherwise, the best bran plan for most women is to get a smattering of each. This way you'll get a healthy dose of soluble and insoluble fiber, not to mention some variety in your diet.
Getting your fill of bran is as easy as eating a bran breakfast cereal, a bran muffin or a whole-grain bread. But make sure you're always getting the goodness of the bran. "Refined grain products like white rice, white bread and most flour have had the fiber-rich bran removed in the milling process," says Grabowski. "Instant oatmeal, for example, has a lot less fiber than whole oats or pure oat bran."
Adding Fiber to Your Life
Making the commitment to a high-fiber diet is relatively easy. Here are some tips.
Ease into it. As great as fiber is, too much too fast can have some nasty side effects including gas, bloating, diarrhea and cramps, says Dr. Jenkins. Start off your first week by increasing your intake by about five grams a day. Then take about a month to work up to the recommended level. From there, if your doctor says it's okay and if you feel no ill effects, you can increase your intake even more.
Don't dry out. We all know a high-fiber diet helps constipation, but if you don't get enough water, it can actually have an opposite effect and clog you up, says Dr. Jenkins. Drink eight to ten glasses of water a day to prevent constipation.
Vary your sources. Doctors aren't certain what ratio of soluble to insoluble you should use when choosing your daily 25 grams of fiber, says Dr. Jenkins, so it's probably wise to get an even dose of both. The best way to do that is to eat a wide variety of fiber-rich foods throughout the day.
Go for the green. Brans and grains are not your only source for fiber. "Don't forget your fresh fruits and vegetables," advises Grabowski. Legumes, beans, peas, salads and fruits can add a whole lot of the much-needed fiber to your diet. For some extra fiber, select fruits that have edible seeds, such as strawberries and kiwis, suggests Grabowski.
Add a few sprinkles. "Fiber is easy to obtain in your diet if you include whole foods such as whole-wheat bread, beans, peas and fresh fruits and vegetables," says Grabowski. But for additional fiber, pick up a box of oat bran at the grocery store and sprinkle it on yogurt, ice cream, fruit, breakfast cereal and salads. Use it in place of bread crumbs in meat loaf or stuffings or as a thickener for soups, stews and sauces. Or substitute oat bran for white flour in baked goods.
Read labels carefully. Don't assume that a product with the words "fiber," "bran" or "oats" in its title necessarily has the fiber content you're looking for. Always check the nutritional information on the box or bag to see just how much fiber is available in each serving. "Also, look for the word 'whole' to precede 'grain' on the ingredient list," suggests Grabowski. "This way you know nothing has been removed and you are sure to get the full benefit of the bran."
Avoid fiber pills. Fiber pills and drink mixes are a quick way to get more fiber, but most professionals don't recommend them, says Grabowski. They're expensive, and it takes several pills and drinks to equal the fiber content of a piece of fruit. Your best bet is to meet your fiber requirements by eating foods that are naturally rich in fiber.
Go whole. Slight changes in the way you eat can infuse your diet with fiber, says Grabowski. Instead of your morning glass of orange juice, try eating a whole piece of fruit, since almost all the fiber gets left behind in the juicing process. Serve whole brown rice instead of white. And if you like meat and potatoes, substitute a baked potato with the skin in place of mashed spuds.
High fiber alone won't do. You might think that eating fiber means you can eat more fat since fiber will cart the bad stuff out of your body. Not so. "A high-fiber diet doesn't somehow neutralize or balance out other unhealthy eating habits," says Dr. Davidson. "Eating an extra candy bar or cheeseburger only makes it harder for fiber to do its job. Fiber will only work when used in conjunction with a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet and plenty of exercise."
Does 25 grams of fiber a day seem impossible to consume? Not if you know where to get it. Here's some help.