When you just can’t go, the go-to cure is — you guessed it — prunes.
Why prunes? Because Grandma’s natural remedy is rich in dietary fiber, a natural laxative. But the fiber in prunes and many other whole foods offers much more than just bathroom benefits, and it’s often overlooked for its importance in our diet, says Anne L’Heureux, chief nutritionist for the Spartan Race, Inc.
“Fiber can improve your gut health, reduce heart-disease risk and even help with weight management, so there are a lot of reasons to work more fiber into your diet every day,” she says.
Let’s look at what fiber is and why it’s so important. Fiber is the scaffolding that makes up the structure of plants. It’s a carbohydrate, but unlike other sugars, it doesn’t break down easily.
There are two main kinds of fiber: insoluble and soluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber is found in many vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains; it doesn’t dissolve in water, remaining intact until late in the digestive process. It bulks up your stool and sweeps your digestive tract clean, preventing constipation.
Soluble fiber can be found in beans, oats, lentils, vegetables and fruits; it dissolves into a gel-like goo in your gut, where it helps slow down the absorption of sugars into your bloodstream. That stabilizes your blood sugar, keeps you feeling full longer, and sucks up cholesterol like a sponge, whisking it out of the body. Research shows that eating soluble fiber regularly can lower LDL, the so-called “bad” cholesterol.
A healthy diet should include both kinds of fiber. Most of us typically get about 15 grams of fiber per day, but we should be consuming 25-30 grams, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Realistically, getting that much daily fiber is pretty tough to do unless you take fiber supplements or regularly eat a bushel of apples.
L’Heureux says that’s OK; even getting a few more grams than the average 15 will do your body good because of the many benefits.
Fiber is a proven weight-loss tool because it fills your belly and keeps hunger at bay longer. Think about what happens when you pour hot water on a bowl of dry instant oatmeal — the oats absorb the water and plump up, doubling in volume. The same thing happens when you eat fiber-rich foods.
Studies have shown that fiber can help people lose weight. One recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine monitored 240 overweight people who had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar. Researchers split the participants into two groups: One group followed the American Heart Association’s recommended diet of more fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods and lean protein; this group also had to focus on eating less sugar, salt, fat and alcohol. The only goal for the second group was consuming 30 grams of fiber a day. Beyond that, they could eat normally.
At the end of the one-year study, both groups averaged 19 grams of fiber per day. The first group lost on average 5.9 pounds, while the non-dieting group each lost about 4.6 pounds — not all that different — which suggests that simply adding more fiber to your diet can help you lose weight even if you don’t change the foods you choose to eat.
Reduce risk of diabetes
Eating lots of processed carbohydrates, like sugary beverages, cookies, cakes, chips and even sweetened yogurts, can elevate your blood sugar and could lead to insulin resistance, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
What do all those processed foods have in common? They are low in fiber and high in fast-absorbing sugars that cause sudden increases in blood sugar. Studies have found that low-fiber, high-sugar diets more than double the risk of type 2 diabetes compared to diets that are high in fiber and relatively low in sugary foods.
If you are overweight or have a history of type 2 diabetes in your family, nudge out the processed flours and foods made with high-fructose corn syrup, and add fiber-rich foods to clean up your diet.
Help your heart
Low-density lipoprotein has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. People with high LDL are often prescribed statin drugs to block the absorption of cholesterol into the blood.
Soluble fiber can do the same thing, according to several clinical studies, which is why doctors often advise patients to eat oatmeal for breakfast. Researchers believe soluble fiber binds with cholesterol particles and shuttles them out of the body before being absorbed by the bloodstream.
A serving of steel-cut oats delivers about 4 grams of soluble fiber. Add some blueberries and chia seeds to the oats, and you’ll get even more. People who consumed 4 to 6 grams of oat fiber every day for breakfast for four weeks lowered their LDL up to 6 percent, according to a study in Nutrition Journal.
Improve your gut
You’ve heard about probiotics, the good-for-your-gut bacteria that’s found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut. Scientists are now learning that dietary fiber is just as important for your gut. Fiber feeds the helpful microorganisms that can extract important nutrients from the foods we eat.
Some studies have shown that when microbes are starved of fiber, they feed on the protective lining of the gut, potentially causing inflammation and disease. And while studies have not proven the notion that dietary fiber can reduce the risk of colon cancer, studies do show that diets high in fiber are associated with lower risk of breast cancer and inflammation of the intestine, known as diverticular disease.
One caution: Add fiber-rich foods gradually to your diet so your system can adapt. Too much fiber too quickly — even from prunes — can backfire and back you up.
Jeff Csatari’s latest book is The 14-Day No Sugar Diet.
Good sources of dietary fiber
- 1⁄2 cup cooked black beans: 5.4 g
- 3⁄4 cup dry oats: 3.0 g
- 1 cup cooked carrots: 2.4 g
- 1 small orange: 1.8 g
- 1⁄2 cup cooked sweet potatoes: 1.8 g
- 1 medium pear: 1.5 g
- 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds: 1.1 g
- 1 medium apple: 1.0 g
- 3 medium prunes: 1.0 g
- 1 cup bran cereal: 7.2 g
- 1⁄2 cup cooked lentils: 7.0 g
- 1⁄2 cup cooked chickpeas: 4.9 g
- 1⁄2 cup blackberries: 3.1 g
- 1⁄4 cup almonds: 3.5 g
- 1 slice whole-grain bread: 2.8 g
- 1 medium grapefruit: 1.8 g