February was National Heart Month and March is both National Nutrition Month AND National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so eeeeeverybody is talking about fiber fiber fiber! But why???
Because most of us are lacking it in our diets! It’s recommended that women get at least 25 gm per day and men at least 38 gm per day (a bit less for both if you’re over 50 years of age), however, the average American diet only includes about 15 gm of fiber per day (1).
You’ve probably heard that you need fiber to maintain regular bowel movements, preventing constipation and stimulating the muscles of the digestive tract to stay healthy and toned. Yes, toned. Yet there are so many more reasons it’s vital to our health.
First it’s important to know there are two types of fiber:
1) Soluble fiber – absorbs water, forming a gel-like substance, solidifying and adding bulk to stools.
2) Insoluble fiber – mainly remains intact and speeds up stool’s movement out of the body.
In particular, soluble fiber helps reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. It binds with LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and takes it out with your digestive trash, and it slows down the absorption of sugar aiding in regulating blood sugar levels. Fiber also works to keep our waistlines from expanding. Most sources of fiber are low in fat, sugar and calories, and soluble fiber actually slows the movement of food in the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract keeping you feeling full. Additionally, while studies are mixed, many of them have shown that fiber helps reduce the risk of colon cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the USA with about five percent of the population being diagnosed with it (2).
So where does one get all this fiber? Plant based foods.
Fiber is the indigestible portion of plants. For example, it is found in the bran (outer shell) of grains, which is why eating whole grains is preferable to refined, processed ones that have stripped the grain of its outer fiber containing layer. Soluble fiber sources include oats, oat bran, cereal brans, barley, rye, fruits, vegetables, legumes (aka beans and peas), seeds and seaweeds. Insoluble fiber is found in whole-wheat flour, whole grain items, brown rice, wheat bran, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds (3).
And how does one get enough fiber in his or her diet?
To start, get your recommended 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ to 3 cups of vegetables per day. Choose whole fruit and vegetables, not the juice forms, and eat the skin or peels, such as on apples, carrots and potatoes, because that’s where a lot of the fiber is in additional to a multitude of vitamins and minerals. Make a fruit and nonfat plain yogurt parfait for breakfast, add it to your whole grain cereals or eat fruit for dessert. Throw vegetables into everything from salads, soups, sandwiches, sauces, etc.
Choose whole grains, especially in bread and pasta products. Look for labels that say ‘100% whole wheat’ or ‘whole grain,’ and that include whole wheat, oats or barley as the first listed ingredient. Add oat bran, flaxseed meal or chia seeds to yogurt or cereal. When baking or cooking, substitute at least half of the flour with whole wheat flour.
Try substituting plant-based protein (ex. nuts, beans) for meats and cheese. Add nuts, beans or peas to soups, salads and pasta dishes, or even mash them up to make a fresh homemade dip for some cut up broccoli, carrot sticks or whole grain crackers.
ALWAYS read food labels. Look for at least 4 gm of fiber per serving. And be creative!
What else do you need to know? If you start to increase the amount of fiber you’re eating, do it slowly because adding fiber to your diet may cause you to feel bloated. Make sure to drink enough water for the fiber to absorb and to help it function properly in your system. Lastly, be careful not to just eat fiber filled products because too much of anything, even good for you foods, can be harmful, and too much fiber may lead to mineral deficiencies.
Below I’ve included a winter appropriate 'fiberful' sweet treat recipe. It's also suitable for vegans. Enjoy for breakfast, a snack or even dessert! :)
Zucchini Carrot Flaxseed Meal Whole Wheat Mini Loaves
Sift together the flour, flaxseed meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices together in a bowl. Set aside.
Mix the coconut milk, applesauce, coconut sugar, maple syrup and vanilla in a bowl. Add the zucchini and carrots. Add the nuts if desired.
Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture and stir until just combined.
Lightly grease the baking pans and spread the mixture evenly into each one.
Bake @350*F for about 45-60 minutes or until a toothpick/knife comes out clean.
Yields: 4 mini loaves
February is American Heart Month, raising awareness about heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and woman: 1 out of 4 deaths (1)! Heart disease includes conditions such as atherosclerosis (when arteries become clogged due to plaque build-up) that can result in coronary artery disease and ultimately cause heart attacks, heart failure and strokes by obstructing the flow of oxygen and blood to the rest of your body (1,2).
What causes plaque build up? It’s mainly low-density lipoprotein (aka LDL aka ‘bad’ cholesterol) mixed with fat, calcium and other miscellaneous materials found in your blood (1,3,4). LDL cholesterol is found in animal food sources such as meat and whole milk dairy. Many processed foods, especially commercially produced baked goods, that contain trans fats from hydrogenated oils or shortening are also high in LDL cholesterol.
The good news is that maintaining healthy nutrition habits can help prevent heart disease.
A heart healthy diet includes:
Limiting: saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt/sodium, alcohol
Incorporating: fruits, vegetables, whole grains (i.e. eat your fiber!)
Unfortunately, many traditional baking recipes use butter, which is no doubt a fantastic tool in adding texture and flavor to baked goods but alas a major dietary source of ‘bad’ cholesterol and saturated fat. Simply put each Tablespoon of butter is loaded with fat (11g), saturated fat (7g), cholesterol (30mg), salt (95mg) and very high in calories (100 kcals) (5).
I remember at my first post-college restaurant job we had THE best granola on the breakfast menu and we employees definitely took advantage of our endless access to it. But when I started working in the kitchen and had to make it for the first time, I nearly fainted learning that the recipe called for 4 pounds of butter. Granted we were mass-producing this tasty treat, but still!! Granola is one of those tricky food items because us dietitians keep telling you to eat more whole grains (which oats surely are) because fiber helps lower cholesterol levels, but typical granola is usually coated in butter and sugar (negating oats' benefits) and mixed with other nutrient dense foods, such as dried fruits and nuts. Not heart healthy!
That said, I do love granola for it’s delightful taste and texture from oats, fruits and nuts but since it is very high in calories per serving, it should only be used in small amounts, such as a topping to some nonfat Greek yogurt or low-fat ice cream, and not eaten like regular cold cereal. Granola is also easy to make at home where you can control the ingredients and lower the fat, sugar and calorie content per serving, making it a healthier food in your diet and for your body. Recently, I was reading my Real Simple magazine (love Martha!) and saw a recipe for Applesauce Granola. I didn’t make her recipe (it includes butter), but I did steal her applesauce addition (think: natural sweetener) to create this Tropical Ginger Applesauce Granola. It’s delicious granola but with much less fat, no added refined sugar, and packed with whole grains, fiber, healthy fats and protein. Now that is heart healthy!
Tropical Ginger Applesauce Granola
(adapted from Real Simple)
Combine the oats, cashews, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, coconut and ginger together in a bowl. Add applesauce and maple syrup and toss until fully coated.
Spread oat mix evenly on a baking sheet (I line mine with a Silpat).
Bake ~60-80 minutes @ 275*F, stirring the oats every 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
Yields: 2 pints
This year, I've just fallen so in love with pomegranates (maybe it's because they remind me of one of my best friends who introduced me to the fruit and who sadly for me is temporarily living overseas). I keep using the arils in my smoothies and to top my yogurt, oatmeal or salads, but I really wanted to try them differently - more of a dessert way. So, I broke out the mini muffin tins, melted down some dark chocolate, and began layering chocolate, almonds, coconut and pomegranates until the tins were leveled off. After they chilled, I popped them out, took a bite, and WOW!!!
Each bite just bursts with fresh and sweet goodness! These little taste satisfying, stress reducing homemade treats are full of antioxidants, flavanols, protein, fiber, 'healthy fats,' and believe it or not may even help reduce the risk of heart disease. But while healthier than a store bought processed candy bar, always remember: moderation is key and a little goes a long way!!
Chocolate Pomegranate Coconut Almond Cups
Start with a layer of chocolate and alternate the ingredients until the tins are leveled off. Chill at least 1 hour. Pop out of molds and enjoy! :D
Yields: 20 mini cups