mericans are dealing with a dangerously high deficit - in fiber.
In fact, U.S. consumers would need to double their daily intake to come close to meeting the current dietary recommendations of 25 to 35 grams.
The repercussions are easy to see, for those who recognize them.
"We eat so many refined, low fiber products that our rate of GI (gastrointestinal) disorders, like diverticulosis, is much higher than it should be," said Sharon Jacob, a clinical dietitian at St. Francis Medical Center in Colorado Springs.
Even people who think they're eating enough fiber may not be eating enough of the right kind, she said.
"People think they're getting the fiber because they're getting roughage, but they're not getting any of that soluble fiber," Jacob said. "The soluble fiber is especially helpful because it can help lower cholesterol, lower blood sugar and help with constipation. It slows the stomach emptying and can help with fullness and weight management, too."
If you've ever watched TV or visited a grocery store, this probably isn't the first time you've heard how important fiber is to a healthy diet. Products meeting FDA requirements for soluble fiber content are allowed to boast that they "may help reduce the risk of heart disease" - and they do boast, in commercials and prominently on packaging.
But what, exactly, is fiber - in its soluble and insoluble versions - and why is it so crucial?
Generally, fiber is the component of plants that resists breakdown by digestive juices in the gastrointestinal tract, said Martha Rosenau, a registered dietitian in Colorado Springs and the media representative for the Southern Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"You know how animals have bones to hold them upright? In plants, what holds them upright is fiber, or cellulose. You can even see it when you look at celery. The strings - that's fiber," said Rosenau, who owns Peak Nutrition.
Because fiber doesn't dissolve during digestion, it helps clean out the system as it moves along.
"The reason you need it in your diet is it's pushing everything through your system," Rosenau said. "Think of it as a broom action."
Insoluble fiber, or roughage, includes the skins of fruits and vegetables, and whole wheat and grains. Such "gut-healthy" foods help speed up digestion and prevent constipation.
"That type of fiber is more visible and we often get that in (our diets), but what we don't get enough of is the soluble fiber, which is the soft kind of fiber that forms a gel," Jacob said.
Soluble fiber, found in oats, barley and psyllium seed husks, absorbs water to form a sticky substance that slows digestion in the stomach, helps lower blood sugar levels and removes cholesterol from the body before it can be absorbed. Because it can affect the body's sensitivity to insulin, it may also help in the prevention and control of Type 2 diabetes.
"In the digestive tract, it acts kind of like a glue and it grabs all that stuff as it moves through and pulls it out of your system," Jacob said.
So, why the deficit and how do we fix it?
"Most people aren't taking the time to prepare food. They're mostly buying packaged foods, quick grabs, the easiest thing they can get their hands on," Rosenau said. "Or, they say 'I just don't know what to do with that food.' People are very conditioned to eating meat, and they know what to do with meat. They just haven't gotten as involved in what to do with legumes or fruits and grains."
Calorie-counting consumers need not fret, said Rosenau. "Calories and fiber don't go hand in hand," she said. "Actually, a plant-based diet would have a lot higher water content, and people would be taking in fewer calories and feeling a lot fuller."
Fiber and nutrition do go hand in hand, though, she added.
"A food that's high in fiber is going to be loaded with nutrients, and we need more nutrients in our diets, too," she said.
A recent study in the journal Nutrition Today suggests that minor diet swaps can bring big payoffs, fiber-wise.
"Looking at menus that mirror typical eating habits and showing individuals the simple changes they can make to increase fiber is a powerful educational tool," said Betsy Hornick, an Illinois-based dietitian, nutrition educator and lead author on the study. "And revealing that these changes can be accomplished with different varieties of foods they already enjoy, without adding calories, empowers them to easily make the change."
Breakfast offers an ideal opportunity to get a jump on the numbers, experts say. A high-fiber cereal, topped with a tablespoon or two of a soluble fiber-rich source, like chia seeds, could earn you big early points.
"You could easily get half of your fiber requirement at breakfast and it makes the rest of the day go easier," Jacob said. "You should still seek out the beans and salads and fruits and vegetables and whole grain breads, but if you don't start out the day with something containing fiber, it's hard to make it up later."
Chia seeds, which contain a whopping 5 grams of soluable fiber per tablespoon, may be the new hit in dietary supplements.
"They're really popular right now," Jacob said. "The nice thing about chia seeds is they're lot easier to use than flax seeds."
The seeds, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and protein as well as fiber, can be added to other foods or made into a pudding. The seeds don't have to be refrigerated and taste similar to poppy seeds.
"They kind of are one of the latest wonder foods," Jacob said. "It's really a lot packed into these little seeds."
At the grocery store, look for foods that have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, Jacob said. She recommends Kashi Go Lean, Raisin Bran and Fiber One.
She also passes along some good advice for those wisely opting to beef up their fiber intake, perhaps for the first time.
"Fiber soaks up liquid like a sponge. With all of this fiber, we do want to emphasize to that people get enough to drink," Jacob said. "If we don't get enough liquid and we're getting all this fiber, it will sit in your gut like a brick."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364