Its multiple healthful benefits can be enjoyed with a few easy strategies and these delicious recipes.
Credit: Randy Mayor

Fall favorites like hearty stews with beans, barley, or lentils, and desserts with fresh apples and pears, are satisfying and naturally abundant in fiber. Not only are high-fiber foods tasty, but they also help to control hunger, lower cholesterol, and maintain digestive health.

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends eating 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily. But estimates show most of us fall short of that, consuming only about 14 grams daily. Yet boosting your fiber intake is easier than you may think, and fall is a great time to switch out typical staples with hearty higher-fiber versions. Swap white English muffins for 100 percent whole wheat versions, corn flakes for bran breakfast cereal or oatmeal, white rice for whole wheat couscous or bulgur, and juice for fresh fruit. Little changes like these add up to a big difference.

"The trick is to think in groups of 10―getting 10 grams in the morning, 10 at lunch, and 10 at dinner," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a Chicago-based spokesperson for the ADA. You can start by simply adding snacks like carrot sticks, a fresh piece of fruit, or popcorn to round out your meals.

Fiber, defined

"Fiber is the part of plant foods that the body can't digest," says Kathy McManus, RD, director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. That means fiber isn't absorbed into the bloodstream and doesn't give us calories, she explains, but helps flush the digestive system as it moves through the body.

Most food labels simply list the total amount of dietary fiber, though some cereal labels break it down by grams of soluble and insoluble fiber. There's a mix of both in all plant-based foods, and some have more of one than the other. Each plays a different but equally important role. "I teach patients that soluble fiber starts with an 's' and is like a sponge. It helps soak up LDL, or bad cholesterol, so it helps primarily with heart health," Blatner says. "Insoluble fiber is more like a broom and it sweeps out waste and keeps us regular." The mechanics are simple. Soluble fiber is so named because it dissolves in water, forms a gel, and helps move cholesterol out of your body. Insoluble fiber traps water to help move things along for digestive health.

Why it works

Fiber also can help with weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight because many high-fiber foods―like fruits and vegetables―tend to be low in calories and their fiber slows down how quickly food is digested. That's why high-fiber food is satisfying. "It fills you up and makes you feel fuller longer, which can lead to eating less," McManus says.

For example, a recent study from the University of Rhode Island at Kingston followed 180 overweight adults for six months while they tried three weight-loss strategies: exercise only; exercise with a low-calorie diet rich in high-fiber, whole-grain cereals; and exercise with a low-calorie diet but no cereals. Both groups that included exercise plus a diet change lost weight, but the whole-grain group also cut down on saturated fat and reduced their cholesterol while boosting their fiber, magnesium, and vitamin B6 intake (all components of whole grains).

There's also some evidence soluble fiber may help regulate blood sugar levels, which is beneficial for diabetics. Since high-fiber meals are digested more slowly, blood sugars are also released into the bloodstream more slowly, Blatner explains.

Food is the best and most enjoyable way to get fiber because you'll benefit from a nutrient-rich package that's likely to include antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The beans, legumes, nuts, and whole grains in these recipes provide filling fare that seems just right this time of year.

Tried-and-true tactics to get more fiber
• Eat the skin. Whether it's apples, pears, or potatoes, most of the fiber is in the skin.
• Read the Nutrition Facts labels for cereals. Five grams of fiber is good, but eight grams or more is better.
• Choose breads and crackers that have at least three grams of fiber per serving.
• Cook vegetables briefly. The longer they cook, the more fiber they lose. Try steaming them until they're crisp-tender to retain most of the fiber content. Also, snack on raw vegetables. Salads―their vegetables and seeds or nuts toppings―are a good high-fiber option.