If there is one question plant eaters get the most, it’s this: Where do you get your protein? America’s obsession with protein, however, is misguided, as statistics show that nobody’s dying of protein deficiency in this country, and in fact, Americans consume too much protein, which can trigger diseases.
Yet studies do show that people are suffering because of fiber deficiency. One, in fact, found that not eating enough fruits and vegetables may be responsible for millions of deaths globally from heart disease and stroke every year around the world. According to the study published in the American Society of Nutrition, roughly 1 in 7 cardiovascular deaths could be attributed to not eating enough fruit and 1 in 12 cardiovascular deaths could be attributed to not eating enough vegetables. The impacts were most notable in countries with the lowest average intakes of fruits and vegetables.
“Fruits and vegetables are a modifiable component of diet that can impact preventable deaths globally,” said lead study author Victoria Miller, a postdoctoral researcher at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said in a press release. “Our findings indicate the need for population-based efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption throughout the world.”
Of course, although it’s a global problem, Americans aren’t eating enough fiber, but how do you define “enough?” There are dietary guidelines, but even those are somewhat lax, according to experts. They shed light on this fiber conundrum and give you a roadmap for getting the right amount to be your healthiest, not only for your gut and heart but also for your weight.
Why is fiber so important? Your gut microbiome, which drives your overall health, needs it
Fiber is the butt of many jokes, namely because it does make people go to the bathroom more regularly, but all jokes aside, fiber is critical for health in general. “In the old days, we used to say that fiber helps with digestion and slows the entrance of food into the bloodstream,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S., nutritionist, and author of The Great Cholesterol Myth. “While that’s still true, we now know that fiber, particularly soluble or prebiotic fiber, is essential for the health of the microbiome, and the microbiome is essential for just about everything.” Immunity, anti-inflammation, and mood are all linked to your gut microbiome, says Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., C.S.S.D., virtual private practice plant-based performance nutritionist.
Fiber lowers the risk of heart disease and helps you maintain a healthy weight
The point about slowing the entrance of food into the bloodstream is particularly noteworthy. “One of the biggest predictors of heart disease, more than cholesterol, is something called insulin resistance, which is all about being on a blood sugar rollercoaster,” Bowden says, adding that these changes with more fiber in the diet. “High-fiber foods generally don’t raise blood sugar quickly while processed, starchy and sugary carbohydrates do.”
In addition, fiber offers numerous other benefits. “Not only does it help promote fullness, which supports healthy weight management, it also supports good digestive health and bowel regularity, supports healthy sleep, helps reduce cholesterol to fend off heart disease and lowers the risk of certain cancers and type 2 diabetes,” Sass says.
Eating more fiber means you’ll eat more health-promoting nutrients
The only way you can get fiber is by eating more plant foods, namely fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods are also loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals that work synergistically to keep you healthier and help you fight diseases like cancer. Simply put, by eating more fiber, you’ll consume more of the nutrients your body needs to thrive.
Determining how much fiber is “enough” to be optimally healthy
Current dietary guidelines recommend that adult women get 25 grams of fiber a day, adult men 38 grams a day (note that this changes with age). To understand what that might entail, a half cup of cooked lentils contains 7.8 grams, half cup of cooked artichokes 7.2 grams, and a medium apple with its skin 4.4 grams.
The surprise? These numbers aren’t magical or even that scientific. “The numbers are just guidelines based on epidemiological studies and a lot of guesswork,” Bowden says. He likens their origin to the same place as the recommendations for ‘eight glasses of water’ or ‘less than 30 percent fat with no more than seven percent saturated’ and notes that our paleo ancestors got a minimum of 50 grams a day, probably more. “Most Americans could probably handle the high range of the current recommendations (38 grams), as no one has ever OD’d on fiber.”
Trouble is, just five percent of Americans are meeting the recommended fiber intake, as the average American consumes only 15 grams a day, according to a study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. One reason? People aren’t eating real or unprocessed whole food. “They’re eating processed food products, and one thing these products don’t have is fiber,” Bowden says. Plus, many Americans are choosing convenience over nutrition, namely in the form of fast food, and fast food isn’t known for its fiber content.
What’s more, only one in 10 Americans eat the minimum recommended intake of two to three cups of vegetables and 1.5 to two cups of fruit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, whole grains make up just 15.8 percent of Americans’ grain consumptions on a given day. Blame it on the standard American diet, whose acronym is SAD for a reason. “The standard American diet is high in processed and refined foods that have been stripped of their fiber and are simultaneously too low in natural sources of fiber,” Sass says.
How to eat a plant-strong diet to ensure proper fiber intake
So what’s the solution? It’s simple: Eat more plants. Sass points to pulses, the umbrella terms for beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas, as being fiber superstars. “Per typically consumed portion, they provide more naturally occurring fiber than vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts and seeds,” Sass says, adding, though, that all of these foods are important.
Another simple strategy is aiming for seven servings of produce per day, ideally five cups of vegetable and two cups of fruit. “That habit alone can generally allow you to easily hit 15 to 20 grams of fiber daily,” Sass says.
Bowden is also a fan of supplementation, namely because it’s tough for some people to get the fiber they need, no matter how conscientious they are. And by picking the right supplement, you can also make sure you’re getting soluble (or prebiotic) fiber, which feeds the “good guy” bacteria in your gut, he notes.
Just make sure that when you add more fiber to your diet, you increase gradually. “Eating fiber is like exercising your digestive tract,” Sass says. “Like any muscle that incurs an increased workload, it needs to adapt to get stronger.” By not adding too much at once, you’re not overloading the GI tract and won’t suffer the consequences of gas, bloating, and discomfort. Also, drink more water to help fiber move through your GI tract, further preventing digestive upset.