Bulking up: Fiber can cure a lot that ails you

Six months ago, Don Stahlhut went on a high-fiber diet per the suggestion of his nutritional coach. Stahlhut, 65, had a family history of heart failure and was taking three medications for high cholesterol. He began scanning labels for fiber content. He switched from sugary cereal to corn bran, and sprinkled it with ground flax. And, when he woke up each day, he stirred two tablespoons of psyllium, a plant-derived form of soluble fiber found in bulk laxatives, into a glass of unsweetened juice.

"Breakfast is sort of a production," says Stahlhut, who, joking aside, has lowered his cholesterol 30 points and cut out two of the three cholesterol medications since switching his diet.

Roughage, it seems, is in. Doctors have long recommended 25 to 35 milligrams of daily fiber for bowel regularity and to prevent diverticulosis, a colon disease that affects nearly half of Americans older than 60.

But fiber is now center-stage as a means of losing weight and curbing high cholesterol, diabetes and other chronic diseases. In fact, the number of consumers who check fiber content on nutrition panels grew to 52 percent last year from 42 percent in 2006, according to the International Food Information Council.

As a result, fiber in the form of cellulose gel and chicory root is popping up on packaged foods, including ice cream bars, toaster pastries and high-sugar cereals marketed to children.

While there are some dietary supplements and packaged foods that health care professionals recommend, an apple a day is still the best way to go, they say.

"If you're choosing a food that otherwise is full of sugar or artificial ingredients, you're missing the boat because the whole point of fiber is the phytonutrients, the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables," says Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, a registered dietitian and coordinator of the Feeling Good Project, a USDA-funded nutrition program that promotes fruit and vegetable consumption. "You're basically failing to give yourself the added benefits when you're choosing to eat a form of fiber that's been sprinkled on by someone."

Good medicine

How does fiber work? It is actually undigested by the body, Brainin-Rodriguez says. Instead of flowing into the bloodstream, the insoluble fiber found in leafy greens, seeds and nuts moves bulk through the intestines, preventing constipation and balancing the pH in the intestines.

Soluble fiber, which is found in fruits, oats and beans, binds with fatty acids and prolongs stomach emptying so that sugar is released and absorbed more slowly — a plus for diabetics. This is also the kind of fiber that lowers total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease, she adds.

Those are both concerns in the Reed household. Cam Reed has high cholesterol, and her husband and daughter are diabetics. Reed is also overweight, she says. Add to that years of bowel irregularity and Reed, who is 64, grew frustrated and asked her doctor about fiber.

"I'm just trying to figure out how to take care of my family," she says. "I've heard about it (fiber) for the last few years but it's nothing anyone told me about 30 years ago. We have fruit trees all around us and we live on vegetables, but if I eat more broccoli I'm going to scream."

Last fall, Reed got a colonoscopy, which revealed that her colon is longer than normal and bent, which may contribute to her bowel irregularities. In addition to fruits and vegetables, her doctor recommended a half-cup of high-fiber cereal once a day. Reed eats one that gives her 14 grams, half of her daily intake, per serving. She also drinks three bottles of water a day and bakes fiber-rich sweet potatoes instead of russets. She feels much better now, she says.

" (The cereal) solves a problem and is less calories than a 100-calorie snack pack that has a bunch of garbage in it," she says.

Buyer beware

Not all packaged foods are garbage, but consumers should be wary. New products such as popcorn and ice cream that promote high fiber are hitting shelves at lightning speed this year.

According to the research group Datamonitor, 6.5 percent of new foods released through May made such claims. Earlier this month, Kellogg announced that by 2010 a majority of its cereals will have at least three grams of fiber per serving. It's important to note that most of the fiber added to foods is insoluble, Brainin-Rodriguez says.

"The idea is that if you eat a more fibrous diet, you absorb less calories and you feel full with less," she explains, adding that this is why diet programs such as Weight Watchers reward those who eat fiber.

Joyce Selkow, a California registered dietitian and health coach, recommends psyllium, a plant-based source of soluble fiber, with a glass of water before dinner to help weight-conscious clients feel sated so they eat less. High-fiber foods, such as bean soup or raw vegetables before dinner, are also healthful, she says.

Chicory root, or inulin, is also popping up in granola bars, cookies and yogurt. While no health professional interviewed for this article had a problem with the natural fiber source — Selkow says it may be beneficial as a prebiotic to promote the growth of good bacteria in your gut — they did report that it can cause discomfort and gas much like other sources of fiber.

Another man-made fiber additive you might find in processed foods is cellulose gel, an emulsifier that is high in insoluble fiber.

"It won't harm you but it seems really bizarre to rationalize getting your fiber this way," Brainin-Rodriguez says. "And people who don't know a lot about fiber can be easily misled."

If you are new to fiber, you'll want to introduce it slowly into your diet, experts say. For instance, start with one piece of fruit a day, adding another serving every four to five days, Brainin-Rodriguez says. And remember, high-fiber diets are not for everyone. If you bloat easily or have digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, fiber can exacerbate your problems, says David Lin, a gastroenterologist.

"You have to do what's reasonable for you," Lin says. "I tell people to eat fiber but I also tell them to be careful. There's a lot of snake oil out there."