February is American Heart Month. More than 80 million people in the United States have some form of heart/cardiovascular disease—that’s about one third of our population. Unfortunately, heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, and many of these deaths and risk factors are preventable. Food choices have a big impact on your heart’s health, even if you have other risk factors. Only a few risk factors, such as age, gender and family history, cannot be controlled. Other risk factors of heart disease, such as high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess weight can be controlled with diet and lifestyle changes and medications. One such change that can be implemented is choosing more soluble fiber in your diet.
Dietary fibers are found naturally in the plants we eat. They are the parts of the plant that do not break down in our stomachs and instead pass through our systems undigested. All dietary fibers are either soluble or insoluble. Both types are equally important for health, but studies have shown that soluble fiber when eaten regularly as part of diet low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol has been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Soluble fibers attract water and form a “gel”. This action slows down digestion. Soluble fiber delays the emptying of your stomach, making you feel fuller and helping to control weight. Slower stomach emptying may also impact blood sugars and have a beneficial effect on insulin sensitivity, which may help control diabetes. Soluble fiber can also help lower LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol by interfering with the absorption of dietary cholesterol.
Sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal and oat cereal, oat bran, barley, legumes such as lentils, beans and peas, apples, oranges, strawberries, pears, blueberries, nuts, flaxseeds, psyllium, cucumbers, celery and carrots. So, how much fiber do you need each day? General recommendations are approximately 25-35 gm fiber/day. Fiber content of foods is listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. Be sure to add fiber gradually to your diet so your body has time to adapt to the change without bothersome gastrointestinal discomfort. Also, you should drink more water as you increase your fiber intake.
Simple tips to get more fiber in your diet include:
• Eat more whole fruit instead of fruit juice.
• Check labels for number of grams of dietary fiber on the nutrition facts panel of packages to choose high-fiber foods.
• Start your day with a bowl of oatmeal or other cereal higher in soluble fiber.
• Snack on raw vegetables.
Add legumes, seeds and nuts into soups, salads and stews.
• Replace refined white bread, pasta and rice with whole-grain products.
• Try a vegetarian meal at least once a week.