Part 6 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement
By Dr. James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic - Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute
When whole grains get refined to make white flour, or apples get processed to make juice, we miss out on one of the most valuable components of the original whole foods: fiber.
Soluble fiber - the kind that dissolves in water - helps regulate cholesterol, which is important to your heart. Oat bran, fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans all provide soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber - which absorbs water in your stomach and intestines - helps keep your digestive system happy and "regular." Wheat bran, whole-wheat bread and most vegetables are good sources of insoluble fiber.
Eating too little fiber is associated with obesity, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes, joint problems and a host of other ills. On the other hand, eating lots of foods containing these two types of fiber is a great way to reach and maintain a healthy weight, since these foods fill you up on fewer calories. Bonus benefit: a high-fiber diet may reduce your risk of certain types of cancer, as well.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat 25 to 30 grams of fiber every day, but the typical American gets only half that much. Your goal for June: fill up on fiber by focusing on whole, natural, unprocessed plant foods. Here are 10 ways to do that.
- Trade white grains for brown. Inventory your pantry and replace most of the white, refined foods (white bread and bagels, white pasta, white rice, white flour, sugary cereals) with whole, high-fiber brown foods (whole-grain breads and bagels, whole-wheat or quinoa pasta, brown rice, whole-wheat flour, oatmeal and whole-grain cereals).
- Eat quinoa instead of white rice. Quinoa is an excellent, high-protein, high-fiber alternative to white rice. It generally cooks faster and delivers five more grams of fiber than white rice. What's more, quinoa is about 40 calories lighter per serving, is far lower in carbohydrates, and gives you double the protein.
- Eat beans at least once a week. Black beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans - take your pick and enjoy them in soups and chili, tacos, salads, cassoulets and other dishes. Beans are incredibly high in fiber - one cup gives you about half a day's recommended intake, and fills you up with fewer calories than meat. One study found that people who ate beans weighed seven pounds less than those who didn't.
- Put out a vegetable platter. The interval after school or work and before dinner is prime snacking time, so keep the cut-up veggies ready. A beautiful platter of crisp broccoli, carrots, celery, cauliflower and peppers, plus a low-fat black bean dip or yogurt-based dip, is a virtuous treat that will boost your fiber intake and curb the munchies without spoiling your appetite. (Make your own dip by mixing nonfat yogurt with lemon juice, thyme, oregano, parsley and pepper.)
- Make vegetables your main course. Start planning your dinners differently, asking first, what vegetable do I want tonight? Fill half your plate with vegetables, using protein and starch as the smaller side dishes. This will not only increase your fiber, but it will most likely cut your calories when compared to the typical meat-centered meal. Here's an easy recipe to get you started: asparagus with almonds.
- Bake a potato. Baked potatoes - and sweet potatoes, too - are an excellent source of fiber, especially if you eat them skin and all. Just watch the toppings. Skip the butter and bacon, and try ground turkey, corn, black beans and salsa for a south-of-the-border version. Or go Greek, with chopped tomatoes, onions and feta. Baking a sweet potato is just as easy as baking a russet, and it doesn't take as long. Plus, baked sweet potatoes taste great and will help you feel satisfied longer than a similar serving of white rice or pasta.
- Choose better bread. I mentioned this in last month's resolution about eating a healthy breakfast, but it bears repeating: eating white bread makes you hungry again sooner and more likely to eat more at the next meal than eating whole-grain bread. Besides, whole-grain bread tastes a whole lot better. Ideally, look for breads that provide 3 or 4 grams of fiber per serving. These will list "whole grain" or "whole wheat" (not just "wheat" - look for the word "whole") as the first ingredient.
- Check the fiber content on your breakfast cereal. As with bread, look for whole grains as the first ingredient. If there's only a gram or two of fiber per serving, you can do better. A cup of raisin bran provides about 7 grams of fiber. Kashi Go Lean provides 10 grams per cup. Want to go hard core? Half a cup of Fiber One packs a whopping 14 grams of fiber.
- Add a banana or a cup of strawberries to your breakfast. Either one will add at least 3 grams of fiber to your daily total.
- Eat an apple a day. A whole apple, with the peel, provides nearly 4 grams of fiber, compared to zero in a glass of apple juice. And from what I hear, if you eat one every day, it keeps the doctor away.
For more inspiration, visit your local farmers market and pick up a bag of whole-grain granola or a package of soup beans, choose at least one fruit or vegetable that you've never tried before, ask the growers how they like to prepare their produce, and watch the cooking demonstrations. Also, stay tuned for next month's resolution, when we will focus on salads - another great way to increase the fiber and nutrients in your diet.
James Beckerman, a cardiologist with the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is the author of “The Flex Diet.” You can learn more about him and his weight-loss philosophies at www.theflexdiet.com.