4 Life-Saving Reasons Why Women Must Eat More Fiber
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women get about 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed. Since the average woman eats about 1,833 calories per day, that adds up to about 26 grams of fiber.
The Institute of Medicine agrees, recommending about 25 grams of fiber per day for women (and 38 grams a day for men). Women older than 50 may require less as they generally eat fewer calories.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t get nearly this much. According to a 2012 study on daily fiber intake in the U.S. population, most people averaged only about 15 grams a day.
In a second 2012 study, researchers stated: “Current fiber intakes are alarmingly low, with long-term implications for public health related to risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, certain gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, and the continuum of metabolic dysfunctions including prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.”
They added that a diet sufficient in fiber has been linked with lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as lower blood sugar and decreased insulin resistance. It’s also thought to help with both weight loss and maintenance and improved gastrointestinal health.
Fiber is critical for a number of health reasons, but for women, there are unique reasons why increasing intake is a good idea.
What is Fiber?
Also called roughage or bulk, dietary fiber includes parts of plant foods that your body can’t naturally digest or absorb. Unlike carbohydrates, proteins, or fats, this fiber passes mostly intact through the digestive system and out of the body. Though it’s mainly known for helping to prevent or relieve constipation, it actually provides a number of health benefits.
When we’re talking about fiber, we typically divide it into two types:
- Soluble: This is fiber that dissolves in water and forms a gel-like material in the gut. Examples include the fiber found in beans, oats, apples, carrots, citrus fruits, psyllium, and barley.
- Insoluble: This type doesn’t dissolve, and helps encourage the movement of foods and waste through the digestive system. Examples include whole-wheat fiber, nuts, wheat bran, green beans, cauliflower, and other vegetables.
Some of the foods listed above have both soluble and insoluble fiber. Both are important for health, and we typically feel best when we’re getting some of both every day. In general, soluble fiber is linked with better blood cholesterol and glucose levels as well as a reduced risk of heart disease, and insoluble with digestive health.
- Fiber Helps Women Maintain a Healthy Weight
We used to think weight gain was simply a matter of consuming more calories than we burned off. More recent research has discovered that it’s a lot more complicated than that. One of the things we’ve discovered is that the balance of bacteria in the gut can play a big part in how the body manages calories.
In a healthy gut, we have more good bacteria than bad, which helps us digest food properly. Because of a number of factors, including illness, antibiotics, age, obesity, and more, that balance can be disrupted, allowing the bad bacteria to gain the upper hand.
In a 2015 animal study, researchers suspected that low-grade inflammation in the gut caused by an imbalance of bacteria could lead to weight gain. They examined the effect of diets varying in amounts of fiber, and how that affected fat accumulation and weight gain.
They found that mice on a diet that included soluble fiber had healthier digestive systems than those who didn’t have soluble fiber. In fact, the ones on the fiber-deficient diet actually had shorter intestines with thinner walls. The researchers believed that the improvements in the gut were caused by fiber-stimulated changes in the gut “microbiota,” which is the bacterial balance.
The exciting thing was that putting soluble fiber back in the diets of these mice helped rejuvenate the gut, and restored the intestinal walls. In mice eating a high-fat diet, switching from insoluble to soluble fiber also protected them from fat accumulation.
Another 2015 human study of 240 adults at risk for type 2 diabetes reported that those who increased their fiber intake to 30 grams a day lost on average 4.6 pounds after a year. They also showed lower blood pressure levels and improved insulin resistance.
An earlier 2003 study of obese middle-aged women found that women who consumed more fiber-rich whole grains consistently weighed less than women who consumed less grain. Over 12 years, those with the greatest increase in fiber intake gained an average of 1.52 kg less than did those with the smallest increase in dietary fiber intake. Women who consumed the most dietary fiber had a 49 percent lower risk of weight gain.
- Fiber May Help Women Avoid Osteoporosis
As women grow older, they are more at risk for osteoporosis and broken bones, particularly broken hips. After menopause, women produce less of the hormone estrogen, which normally helps promote the activity of cells that produce bone. As the levels decline, less bone is produced, increasing risk of osteoporosis—a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle.
Women over the age of 50 are four times more likely than men to develop osteoporosis, and several studies have indicated that recovery is particularly difficult.
We know that adequate calcium intake—particularly when we’re teens—can help us build strong bones. After about the age of 35, the bone starts to break down, which can cause a gradual loss of bone mass unless we take steps to preserve it.
One of the things we can do is make sure we get enough dietary calcium, which encourages the buildup of bone. But studies have discovered that without enough fiber in the diet, the body has a difficult time absorbing calcium.
In a 2000 study, for instance, calcium absorption in the body was found to be related to dietary fiber intake. Women in the lowest tertile of ratio of dietary fat to fiber had a 19 percent lower absorption rate of calcium then women in the highest tertile of ratio of dietary fat to fiber.
According to the researchers: “There is a wide range of calcium absorption values in healthy women. The amount of dietary fat consumed relative to dietary fiber appears to have an important role in determining differences in calcium absorption performance among individuals.”
A more recent 2016 study also reported that supplementing with soluble fiber in adolescence and post-menopause helped build and retain calcium in bone.
- Fiber Helps Women’s Tummies
Did you know that women, in general, suffer from constipation more often than men? In a 2009 study, researchers found that out of 518 patients, women experienced constipation symptoms and abnormal bowel habits more frequently than men.
Women are also more likely to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In a 2010 study, researchers found a significant gender disparity in people with IBS, with women outnumbering men. They also found that women were more likely to suffer from symptoms of constipation with their IBS, while the prevalence of diarrhea was similar between the genders. Women were also more likely to experience severe symptoms.
A high-fiber diet is often prescribed as a treatment for constipation. Researchers have discovered that gradually increasing fiber intake helps to improve constipation and its associated symptoms. In a large 2012 meta-analysis of 5 studies, dietary fiber intake increased stool frequency.
Other studies have found that fiber can be helpful in treating IBS for some people. Though it can exacerbate symptoms in some cases, soluble fiber, in particular, has shown to help improve symptoms, including abdominal pain.
Finally, women who want to avoid colorectal cancer should also try to eat more fiber. One 2003 study of over 500,000 participants discovered that those with the highest amounts of fiber in their diets had a 40 percent lower risk of developing colon cancer than those with the lowest fiber intake.
- Fiber Reduces Risk of Heart Disease
Heart disease remains the number one killer of women, with one women dying from the disease about every 80 seconds. An estimated 44 million women in the U.S. are affected, with 90 percent of them having one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke.
You wouldn’t think that fiber, which helps with digestion, would have anything to do with the health of the heart, but it does. In a 2013 study, for example, researchers reported that greater dietary fiber intake was associated with a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
An earlier 2002 study found similar results, and in a 2008 study, researchers found that not only did a diet high in fiber reduce risk of coronary heart disease, it also reduced risk of overall mortality.
Why would fiber help prevent heart disease? Researchers believe it’s because fiber can lower cholesterol, maintain normal blood sugar levels, reduce internal inflammation, and help women maintain a healthy weight. All of these factors together help reduce keep the cardiovascular system healthy.
How to Get More Fiber Today
How can you tell if you need more fiber in your daily diet? First, watch food labels for fiber content. Second, pay attention to your digestion. If you’re frequently suffering from constipation, it could be that you need more fiber. Good clues are bowel movements less than three times a week, and hard and dry stools.
Third, watch your weight. If you find you’re packing on the pounds, eating more fiber could help. If you have diabetes and your blood sugar levels are fluctuating more than you’d like, that could be a sign of a low-fiber diet. If you often feel fatigued or suffer from nausea, that’s another clue.
It’s not hard to incorporate more fiber in your diet. Try these tips:
- Remember that meat and fatty foods typically have no fiber at all. Dairy foods contain only a very small amount.
- Read labels and choose foods with more fiber.
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Try adding fruit to every meal.
- Try high-fiber cereals and whole-wheat breads and pastas.
- Cut back on fatty foods and high-sugar items.
- Avoid refined and processed foods, like white bread and canned fruit.
- Add more beans to your daily diet, including black beans, kidney beans, lima beans, and navy beans.
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