Fiber is a group of indigestible saccharides (i.e. carbohydrates) from plant foods that help regulate digestion and bowels, regulate hunger and satiety (which may help promote a healthy weight), lower cholesterol, reduce risk of certain cancers, and help regulate blood sugar.
Many assume that vegetarian diets automatically meet recommendations for fiber (usually around 20-35 grams/day, based on individual needs) due to the plant-based nature of the diet. However, just being a vegetarian does not guarantee adequate fiber intake. A vegetarian who chooses a large percentage of refined grains, sugars, and processed foods, may find their diet lacking in fiber (and a whole host of other nutrients, but hey, that’s another blog!).
Refined grains are those that have been processed to remove the germ and the bran (where the vast majority of your fiber and vitamins and minerals come from), leaving only the starchy endosperm behind. Some examples of refined grains are: white bread, sourdough bread, white rice, and white pasta. A good way to check if your grains are whole is to look at your ingredient list. You want your first ingredient to be a whole grain, such as whole wheat flour. Does this mean every grain you eat has to be a whole grain? No, but try to make most of your grain choices whole grains (the recommendation is at least half of your grains be whole grains). For example, a good rule of thumb when choosing cereals is to shoot for at least five grams of fiber per serving.
Sugars are carbohydrates that are relatively simple in structure and very easy for the body to break down. They can be a good source of energy but should be used in moderation. When you eat too much sugar, you can have a spike in energy, followed by a crash. Eating more complex carbohydrates allows your body to take the energy out a little at a time, resulting in a more sustained and level energy. For example, by eating a fruit instead of a candy with the same amount of sugar, the body has to work to get the energy out of the fruit, since there is also fiber there. With the candy, the sugar is readily available and will all quickly be absorbed. There are many sources of sugar out there, but some common ones are table sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup. While some of these may have some nutritive value to them, remember they are all still highly concentrated sugars, so watch your portion! Try to get more sugars from higher fiber sources such as fruits. For example, if you are making a smoothie, add in fresh fruits instead of syrup or sugar. This way you will get the sweetness, the vitamins/minerals/phytonutrients, and the fiber.
Processed foods are foods that have been prepared in advance for our convenience. Processed foods are often found frozen, canned, or boxed. There are plenty of healthy processed foods out there, you just have to shop wisely (a whole other blog right there!). Avoid foods with too many added fats (especially saturated or trans fats), preservatives, salt, and sugar. Now that is just a generalization, but to get back on topic, many processed foods are, or include, refined grains. For example, many boxed rice mixes use white rice or white pasta. From a fiber standpoint, you want to look for whole grains on your ingredient list, just like with the grains mentioned above. It’s also good to look for products with fruits or vegetables added. Some other good sources of fiber often found in processed foods (as well as in other places) are beans, many mock meats, and nuts.
If you are planning to increase your fiber intake, do so slowly! Increasing it too rapidly can lead to bloating, gas, discomfort, and bowel issues. If you get these, they should subside within a few days (if they don’t see your doctor). Also when increasing your fiber intake, make sure you are getting plenty of liquids. A lot of fiber + too little water = constipated! Remember all these recommendations are general, if you have specific needs, please consult your doctor or dietitian.