The Hungry Engineer

The Fiber of Our Being

19 Sep 2008

As a general rule, we (here in America anyway) don’t get enough fiber in our diets. Dietary fiber is not a very sexy subject to talk about. Usually it’s thought of only in terms of keeping one’s digestive system … “regular”. But the benefits of adequate fiber consumption are much greater than that.

Let me preface all this by saying that I am in no way qualified to dispense advice. I’m not a doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist. But here are some of the things I’ve learned. Beyond the well-known aid to the gastrointestinal system, certain sources of fiber are also known to help lower blood cholesterol in some people. Reducing cholesterol has the effect of potentially lowering blood pressure which reduces ones risk of having a heart attack. Eating foods high in fiber also has the effect of making you feel “full” longer (since it takes the body longer to digest these things). Couple that with the fact that given servings of equal size (volumetrically speaking), foods that are high in fiber tend to have fewer calories than those that are not, and you have a good tool for managing weight as well.

How much fiber a person needs depends on the person. I know there is some controversy over how adequate the USDA’s food pyramid is for helping us achieve dietary health, but it represents a good guideline regardless. I used their My Pyramid Tracker tool to analyze my nutrient intake. Turns out that my dietary fiber requirements are, according to the site, about 25 grams per day. Yours may vary a bit from that depending on your age and gender. It is generally estimated that Americans consume only about half of the dietary fiber they need each day.

There are plenty of sources for dietary fiber that can be worked into our diets. The obvious choice is beans (or rather, legumes in general). I just checked my cupboard and found canned chick peas (aka garbanzo beans aka ceci beans), and they have 7 grams of fiber for a ½ cup serving. Using the USDA’s National Nutrient Database as a reference, here are fiber values for commonly consumed beans:

½ cup prepared navy beans 9.6g
½ cup prepared lentils 7.8g
½ cup prepared pinto beans 7.7g
½ cup prepared black beans 7.5g
½ cup prepared kidney beans 5.7g

Other good sources of fiber are fruits and vegetables. Again, I looked up the values for commonly used fruits and veggies in the National Nutrient Database for reference:

1 cup baked with skin sweet potatoes 6.6g
1 medium (2 ¼" - 3 ¼" diameter) baked russet potato 4.0g
1 cup raw carrots 3.6g
1 cup cauliflower 2.5g
1 cup cooked zucchini 2.5g
1 cup chopped raw green bell pepper 2.5g
1 cup raw broccoli 2.4g
1 cup raw shredded cabbage 1.6g
1 cup raw celery 1.6g
2 cups romaine lettuce 2.0g
2 cups raw spinach 1.4g
1 cup raw raspberries 8.0g
1 cup raw blackberries 7.6g
1 cup orange slices 3.6g
1 cup blueberries 3.6g
1 cup sliced strawberries 3.3g
1 cup pitted sweet cherries 3.2g
1 medium (7"-7 7/8" long) banana 3.1g
1 cup raw with skin apples 3.0g
1 cup sliced peaches 2.3g
1 cup pineapple chunks 2.3g

Whole grains and nuts can provide an additional source for fiber. Some common (or maybe not so common) grains and nuts and their dietary fiber according to the National Nutrient Database:

½ cup dry red winter wheat (yielding about 1 cup cooked) 11.7g
1 cup cooked pearled barley 6.0g
1 cup cooked quinoa 5.2g
1 cup cooked oatmeal 4.0g
2 cups popped popcorn 2.2g
¼ cup slivered almonds 3.3g
¼ cup pistachios 3.2g
¼ cup peanuts 3.1g
¼ cup shelled chopped pecans 2.6g
¼ cup shelled chopped walnuts 2.0g

I also try to sort of sneak in extra fiber here and there by serving things like whole wheat spaghetti and brown rice instead of white and substituting whole wheat flour for at least a portion of the white flour when making bread. And we try to choose breakfast cereals that contain a decent amount of fiber per serving (our current cereal provides about 3g fiber per 1 cup serving, though there are plenty that provide more).

Still 25 grams (or more, depending on your age and gender) a day may seem like a tough number to manage to. There’s a Cooking Light article that talks about splitting your day into manageable portions, which seems like a really good approach to me. Assume you need 30 grams of dietary fiber and split it across three meals. Plan to consume 10g at breakfast, 10g at lunch and afternoon snack, 10g at dinner. They even offer a sample of what a day like that might look like for reference.

I will close this out by saying that as an avid food-lover, I sometimes find it difficult to make myself slow down and pay attention to the nutritional content of what I’m consuming. That said, I have had a lot more success with incorporating a few healthier habits and alternatives here and there than I ever would have if I tried to diet. I still cook with butter and heavy cream, just not as often and not usually in the staggering amounts that I used to. I still eat red meat now and then, I just may split between Sean and I what I would have eaten myself before (this has the added benefit of leaving more room on your plate for vegetables, by the way). The charts above are meant to do nothing more than raise awareness (mine and yours). I look at the adoption of these healthy eating habits as a method to stave off the rigid dietary restrictions imposed by scary things like diabetes or heart disease. In the end, it is often all about balance.

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