Debbie Fireman is a self-proclaimed fiber junkie. The 41-year-old marketing exec from Penn Valley, Pa., eats fiber-rich foods "all day long," including whole foods like fruits, veggies, grains and beans. But that's not all. Her pantry is stocked with fiber supplements, cereals and snack bars, loaded with apples, cinnamon, peanut butter and chocolate. "Fiber is great for you, and it doesn't have to taste like cardboard," she says.
Once relegated to the bottom of the heap by carb-phobic foodies enamored by all things high in protein, fiber is finally getting some respect. There were 400 new high-fiber food products introduced in 2002, according to market-research firm Datamonitor. Last year, 890 new products hit supermarket shelves, including high-fiber breads, chips, crackers, cookies, and prepared meals and entrees. And 2007 is poised for more growth as aging boomers and Gen-Xers discover fiber's benefits. If you're tired of dry and flavor-free whole-wheat foods, don't despair. "Fiber is a growth category, and companies are trying to be more creative," says Datamonitor analyst Tom Vierhile.
For doctors and nutritionists who have been pushing the health benefits of fiber for years, this is good news. "People used to fall asleep when you would talk about fiber," says registered dietitian Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Now fiber is hot, and people are realizing it's more than nature's broom." Fiber does more than keep us, um, regular. Found only in plant foods, it's the part of the plant that humans can't digest. It's either soluble (which helps you absorb nutrients from food and slows digestion) or insoluble (which helps food pass through the intestines). Most plant foods are a mix of both fibers. Research shows that this nutritional workhorse may reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems like diverticular disease. It can even help you keep your weight in check by making you feel full. (New research shows that it does not protect against colorectal cancer or polyps, however.) Though science is still unclear why it has such a global effect on the body, it may be due to the antioxidants and other good-for-you chemicals found in fiber-rich foods.
Unfortunately, most Americans still don't get enough of it. Current recommendations call for adults to get anywhere from 21 grams to 38 grams of fiber each day. Yet the average American eats only about half that amount, according to the National Fiber Council (nationalfibercouncil .org). It's not that tough to increase your fiber profile. One cup of cooked broccoli gives you 5.1g while one cup of chickpeas provides a whopping 10.6g. (For more high-fiber foods see usda.gov or wholegrainscouncil.org.)
While most nutritionists prefer that you eat whole foods to get benefits like antioxidants and other good-for-you nutrients, they don't have much of a problem with high-fiber packaged foods or supplements. Though supplements may not give you all the benefits of whole foods, some research shows they may help lower bad cholesterol. Make sure you read labels to avoid foods high in saturated fats and sodium. Foods claiming to be high in fiber must contain at least 5g per serving; and foods claiming to be "good sources" must have at least 2.5g per serving. Some good high-fiber choices: Kashi cereals or its new line of frozen entrees like Pesto Pasta Primavera ($3.99; kashi.com), LightFull smoothies in flavors like Café Latte or Peaches & Cream ($2.49 or $25/12 pack; lightfullfoods.com), General Mills Fiber One Chewy Bars ($2.79). And check out new fiber supplements that you can cook and bake with like Fibersure (for a free sample and $2-off coupon see fibersure.com). They'll make healthy eating taste even sweeter.