What's The Best Source Of Fiber: Pills Or Food?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 1:22pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

A very clever TV ad shows a busy working woman multi-tasking at her desk—talking on the phone and munching on broccoli stalks. The ad makes it seem as though getting enough fiber from food takes so much time and effort that the woman must eat broccoli all day long just to keep up. Which is obviously very inconvenient! But what’s the solution to this modern dilemma? Is taking a fiber supplement a good substitution for the fiber in food?

Why is fiber important?

Most people are aware that fiber is important. High fiber diets are associated with numerous health benefits, including lower rates of cancer. Oatmeal fiber is touted as “heart healthy” because research shows it lowers cholesterol. And there is evidence that fiber positively impacts body weight—possibly because high fiber foods make you feel fuller sooner, thus helping to curb calorie intake. (Imagine trying to binge on broccoli! Two stalks have about the same amount of fiber as six donuts. And to get the same amount of calories as in six donuts, you would have to eat 40 broccoli stalks.)

Then, there’s the issue of regularity. Fiber clearly helps with bowel function. If the numerous ads for laxatives are any indication of the problem of regularity, it’s pretty clear that people must not be getting enough fiber from food. In fact, because many of the popular foods in our culture are low fiber, the majority of people don’t get the recommended amount of fiber. White flour products (like burger buns and donuts) and snack foods (like chips, meat, cheese and sweets) are all low fiber. While the recommended daily intake of fiber ranges from 20-35 grams for adults, the average intake is closer to 15 grams. While food manufacturers are coming out with higher fiber products, many people think pills are easier. But are pills a good way to boost your fiber intake?

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Food vs. fiber supplements

Consider oatmeal: A 3/4 cup serving of cooked oatmeal has almost 3 grams of fiber. A small salad with spinach, tomato, cucumber and broccoli also contains about 3 grams of fiber. Comparatively, three tablets of a popular fiber supplement will give you the same 3 grams. What’s the downside of the pills? Dietitians and nutritionists would point out that food has many other nutritional benefits besides the fiber content: vitamins, minerals, protein and other substances no one has evaluated yet. Plus food tastes better. The other issue is that pills are an expensive way to get fiber. Three grams of fiber from pills costs approximately 50 cents, whereas the same amount of fiber from oatmeal or bran cereal costs about 10 cents or less. If you want to get your recommended intake of 25 grams a day from pills, you’d be spending $4 a day on fiber supplements. It is tempting, though, to just go on eating your same old low fiber diet and take the pills.

Great sources of fiber

Our best fiber sources are fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Pears, blackberries, apples, peaches, oranges, bananas and raspberries are especially good sources. As for vegetables, it’s hard to find one that isn’t a good fiber source. Bran and oat cereals are well-known for fiber content, but other cereals made with whole grains, like shredded wheat, are also good choices. If you eat several servings of these foods everyday, you’re likely getting adequate fiber. If not, your first step should be to add more of these to your diet. (See Fiber: What's the best way to add it to your diet? for more ways to add fiber to your diet naturally.)

Why not just use supplements? After all, they do provide fiber that’s similar to that from foods. And fiber is a good thing. But supplements won’t fix an unhealthy diet. You would simply be adding one beneficial ingredient to a less-than-wonderful mix. The best advice is eat more high fiber foods. There are many web-based sources of information on the fiber content of foods. If you Google “fiber in foods” you get almost 16 million hits! Data can vary from one study to another, so values are not exact. If you eat plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains you don’t have to worry about the numbers.