You may not think much about fiber — until you find yourself dealing with an, er, irregular situation.
Indeed, dietary fiber is a magic ingredient that keeps you regular. But thwarting constipation is not its only job. “Fiber does lots of cool stuff in the body,” says registered dietitian Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDCES.
Here’s why you need it — and where to get it.
Benefits of a high-fiber diet
Fiber is an unsung hero. Among its claims to fame, a high-fiber diet can:
- Soften stool and prevent constipation.
- Lower cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease.
- Reduce the risk of diseases such as colorectal cancer.
- Keep blood sugar levels from spiking.
- Make you feel full longer, which can help you lose weight.
There are two types of fiber, both of which are good for you:
- Soluble fiber pulls in water. It slows digestion and lowers cholesterol. Soluble fiber is found in foods such as beans, seeds, peas, barley, oat bran and some fruits and vegetables.
- Insoluble fiber is your classic roughage. It helps stool speed through the intestines. You’ll find it in foods such as whole grains, wheat bran and the peels and seeds of fruits and veggies.
Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, Taylor says — and a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber is ideal.
What foods are high in fiber?
Fiber comes from plants, so don’t bother looking for it in your chicken dinner. But the plant kingdom has a lot to offer, and the best sources of dietary fiber might surprise you. Here are Taylor’s top 11.
1. Whole-wheat pasta
Carbs get a bad rap, but whole grains are a great source of fiber and are also rich in healthy phytonutrients, Taylor says. Skip the white pasta (which has been stripped of all the good stuff), and go for whole-wheat instead.
Nutrition information: 1 cup cooked = 7g fiber, 180 calories, 38g carbs, 8g protein.
“Barley is a delicious grain that’s often overlooked,” Taylor says. Try tossing it in soups or mix up a grain bowl with your favorite meat and veggies.
Nutrition information: 1 cup cooked = 6g fiber, 190 calories, 44g carbs, 4g protein.
“Legumes are star players. They’re some of the best sources of protein and fiber, they help keep you full, and they have amazing nutrient composition,” Taylor says. Chickpeas are a fiber-full favorite from the legume list. Add them to soups or salads, snack on chickpea hummus or roast them whole for a crunchy, shelf-stable snack.
Nutrition information: ½ cup cooked = 6g fiber, 140 calories, 23g carbs, 7g protein.
Edamame, or immature soybeans, have a mild flavor and pleasing texture. They’re also one of the few plant sources that contain all the amino acids your body needs, so they’re a great choice for vegans and vegetarians. You can find them in the frozen food section, still in the pod or already shelled. Add edamame to salads and stir-fries, Taylor suggests. (Edamame is often a big hit for kids to snack on, too.)
Nutrition information: ½ cup boiled and shelled = 4g fiber, 100 calories, 7g carbs, 9g protein.
5. Lentils and split peas
These two legumes have similar nutrition profiles and are used in similar ways. “Lentils and split peas are nutritional powerhouses,” says Taylor. They cook quickly and are great in soups. Try swapping lentils for some of the meat in your chili to boost the plant-powered goodness, she recommends.
Lentils, ½ cup cooked = 8g fiber, 120 calories, 20g carbs, 9g protein.
Split peas, ½ cup boiled = 8g fiber, 120 calories, 20g carbs, 8g protein.
“All berries are good for you, but blackberries and raspberries have the most fiber,” Taylor says. They’re also delicious. Fresh berries can be expensive, but frozen are often more economical. If you don’t love the mushy texture of thawed berries, blend them into a smoothie or stir them into your oatmeal, she suggests. “You can also cook them down and put them on waffles in place of syrup.”
Nutrition information: 1 cup = 8g fiber, 70 calories, 15g carbs, 5g sugar.
Another fruit, pears, are a fantastic source of fiber, Taylor says. And compared to many other fruits, they’re particularly high in soluble fiber.
Nutrition information: 1 medium pear = 6g fiber, 100 calories, 28g carbs, 17g sugar.
8. Artichokes hearts
Artichoke hearts are packed with fiber. Add them to salads or pile them on pizza. If dealing with these spiky veggies is too daunting, try the canned kind, Taylor says. (But if you’re eating canned, keep an eye on sodium levels so you don’t go overboard.)
Nutrition information: ½ cup cooked = 7g fiber, 45 calories, 9g carbs, 2g protein, 1g sugar.
9. Brussels sprouts
If you’ve been avoiding Brussels sprouts since you were a kid, they’re worth a second look. “Brussels sprouts are awesome,” Taylor says. They’re delicious roasted or sautéed. (Plus, they’re cute.)
Nutrition information: 1 cup cooked = 5g fiber, 60 calories, 12g carbs, 3g sugars, 5g protein.
10. Chia seeds
A spoonful of chia seeds can go a long way. “They’re incredibly rich in fiber, contain omega-3 fatty acids and have a nice protein punch, too,” Taylor says. “You can throw them in oatmeal, yogurt, pudding, cereal, salads and smoothies.”
Many people love the jelly-like texture. If you aren’t one of them, try mixing them into a smoothie or yogurt right before you eat it, so they don’t have as much time to absorb water and plump up.
Nutrition information: 2 tablespoons = 10g fiber, 140 calories, 12g carbs, 5g protein.
11. Haas avocados
Haas avocados are a great source of healthy fats. And unlike most fiber-rich foods, you can use them like a condiment, Taylor says. “You can spread avocado on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise, or put it on your toast if you’re a true millennial.” Guacamole (with whole-grain crackers or paired with raw veggies) is another delicious way to get your daily fiber.
Nutrition information: ½ avocado = 5 g fiber, 120 calories, 6g carbs, 1g protein.
Eating more fiber? Read this first!
Before you jump on the fiber bandwagon, a word of caution: “Add fiber to your diet slowly,” Taylor says. If you aren’t used to a lot of fiber, eating too much can cause bloating and cramping. Increase high-fiber foods gradually over a few weeks to avoid that inflated feeling.
Another important tip: “When adding fiber to your diet, be sure to drink enough water,” she says. Fiber pulls in water. That’s a good thing, but if you aren’t drinking enough, it can make constipation worse. To keep things moving, drink at least 2 liters of fluids each day.
“If you increase your fiber slowly and steadily, and drink lots of fluid, your body will adjust,” Taylor says. And you’ll be glad it did.