It provides a potent, life-saving trio of benefits for people who have or are or prone to diabetes: It normalizes blood sugar, lowers blood cholesterol, and promotes weight loss. No, it isn’t the latest wonder drug. In fact, it’s as close as your cereal box or fruit bowl.
Dietary fiber—or what your grandma called “roughage”—is the indigestible part of plant foods, explains Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE, CDN, a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Fiber fits under the classification of carbohydrates. It’s the third
type of carbohydrate—sugars, starches, and dietary fiber—and is found in foods such as fruits and vegetables, dried cooked beans, and whole grains.”
Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes and an estimated 79 million adults have prediabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet. Prediabetes is a condition that increases the risk of full-blown type 2 diabetes as well as heart disease and stroke. Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes and occurs when either the body does not produce enough insulin or the body’s cells ignore the insulin that is produced. When insulin can’t transport food in the form of glucose into the body’s cells to produce energy, the blood’s sugar or glucose level rises. An elevated blood sugar level is the classic finding that diagnoses type 2 diabetes. Symptoms of diabetes include feeling tired as well as increased hunger, thirst, and urination.
One of the strongest studies to show how powerfully effective fiber can be in preventing diabetes was published last summer in the Journal of Nutrition. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s School of Public Health carefully reviewed 66 studies that spanned nearly a half-century and looked at whole grain and fiber consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes. The scientists discovered that compared with subjects who never or rarely ate whole grains, individuals who consumed three to five servings daily had a 26% lower risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and a 21% reduced risk of heart disease. They also consistently gained less weight.
Dietary fiber works its magic in three key ways. “First, it slows the conversion of starches to sugars to stabilize blood sugar levels. I call it the Alka Seltzer effect,” Brown-Riggs says. “Fiber creates a slow, gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream.”
Second, she explains, “A large body of research shows that fiber can lower total cholesterol and the bad, or LDL, cholesterol that’s linked with heart disease. Fiber accomplishes this by forming a gel in the digestive tract that binds cholesterol where it’s eventually excreted from the body. Soluble fiber, the type found in apples, oats, barley, and beans, is especially effective at lowering cholesterol.”
The third benefit of fiber is that it provides a feeling of fullness or satiety that can aid in weight control, Brown-Riggs says. Many people with or at risk of type 2 diabetes are overweight, she adds.
How much fiber should a person with or predisposed to diabetes eat to gain this trio of benefits? “The American Diabetes Association and the practice guidelines of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend the same quantity of fiber as is recommended for the general public in the 2010 Dietary
Guidelines for Americans, or 14 grams of dietary fiber per 1,000 calories,” Brown-Riggs says. “This amounts to 20 to 35 grams daily for the average adult man or woman.”
The best way to consume this amount of fiber is to eat a variety of high-fiber foods throughout each day. The Nutrition Facts panel on packaged foods lists dietary fiber in grams per serving.
“I recommend that my clients jump-start their fiber intake with a bowl of high-fiber breakfast cereal,” Brown-Riggs says. “For example, a 1⁄2 cup serving of Fiber One cereal provides 14 grams of fiber, or about half the daily recommendation. A sliced fresh orange adds another 3 grams of fiber to the meal. Eat a salad with a cup of mixed greens and a 1⁄2 cup of beans as part of lunch and you’ll add another 8 grams of fiber or be up to 25 grams of fiber before dinner.”
Fitting fiber into a diabetic diet is easy, Brown-Riggs adds. “Diabetic diets are individualized; however, most women [for example] can eat three to four carbohydrate choices at a meal. The key is to make these selections do double duty—for example, a whole apple that provides fiber rather [than] a cup of apple juice or a slice of whole grain bread or 1⁄2 cup of cooked brown rice rather than white bread or white rice.”
There are many fiber-fortified foods and supplements available, too. While these can have a positive effect on blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight, what they lack is the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients found in whole foods. So think whole foods first when it comes to filling up on fiber. Also, gradually
increase fiber intake on a weekly basis to prevent side effects such as gas, bloating, and constipation and drink plenty of fluids.
“What many don’t realize is that persons with diabetes should eat the same way the general public should be eating or, in other words, following the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines,” Brown-Riggs says. “Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter of your plate with grains—at
least half of these or three to five servings daily should be whole grains—and the final quarter of the plate with protein foods that include cooked dried
beans, and you can meet your daily fiber needs and help keep blood sugar, blood cholesterol, and body weight under control.”