By Renu Mansukhani, MD
In my work with people living with diabetes (and my patients in general), I have found many of us feel guilty about not eating more vegetables. We all know how hard our parents tried to get us to eat more veggies as kids. And yet we still struggle. But where did this old adage come from? Why were they on us about it?
Eat Your Greens!
It’s because colorful veggies are a great source of vitamins and fiber. Unfortunately, most of us tend to do a pretty lousy job at getting enough vegetables. And especially fiber. According to dietitian Katherine McManus of the Harvard Health blog, Americans eat about 10-15 grams of fiber per day on average. That’s far less than the USDA’s recommended daily intake of 25 grams and 38 grams for women and men under the age of 50, respectively. If we take a historical perspective, even the USDA’s recommendations are far less than the 100 grams per day our hunter/gatherer ancestors would have consumed in East Africa 10,000+ years ago. So why does this matter? Below I’ll try to briefly explain what fiber is, why it’s important for everyone, and drill down even further on why it’s especially important for those living with diabetes and/or managing their blood sugar.
What is Dietary Fiber?
Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate found in plants such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. It is the material that makes up the structure of a plant’s cells. Unlike other forms of carbohydrates, dietary fiber cannot be digested by our bodies. Typically, we think of fiber as coming in two forms: soluble and insoluble. These two types are usually found together in plants, but the levels of each can vary. The difference between them is whether they dissolve in water or not. Both are important and everyone can benefit from a healthy dose of each.
A Good Idea For Everyone
A diet rich in fiber has many core benefits. Research on the health benefits of fiber is ongoing, but below are several of the core, well-researched benefits.
- Heart Health: Fiber (especially soluble fiber) has been shown to lower total cholesterol levels by reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels. Other studies have looked at a high-fiber diet’s impact on blood pressure and inflammation and shown positive results.
- Gut and Bowel Health: Most people have heard that a good way to combat constipation is eating lots of fiber. Fiber helps your stool solidify and yet remain soft, making it easier to pass. Additionally, fiber provides food for the good bacteria living in your gut. Fueling a healthy gut with these prebiotic fibers has numerous health benefits. You can read all about prebiotic fibers on our blog post here.
- Satiety and Weight Control: For those of us managing our weight, we know how hard it is to control cravings and avoid becoming overly hungry. Dietary fiber helps give us a feeling of fullness which can help us eat less and stay satisfied longer. Additionally, because foods high in dietary fiber tend to be less energy-dense, we often end up reducing total calories.
A Powerful Tool for Managing Blood Sugar
In addition to the core health benefits of a high-fiber diet, fiber can be an extremely important tool in managing blood sugar. For people living with diabetes, soluble fiber can help slow the absorption of sugar and help improve blood sugar levels. It does this by forming a gel with water which moves more slowly through the digestive system. So, instead of being rapidly absorbed, it is taken up over time allowing for a gradual and smaller blood sugar response. As we’ve discussed before, preventing blood sugar (and insulin) from spiking is critical for getting off of the rollercoaster that can lead to problematic highs and lows.
The Best Sources of Fiber
When evaluating a food for fiber content, I encourage my patients to avoid reading the front of a package and go straight to the nutrition facts and ingredients. Food companies have come up with all sorts of buzzwords to make consumers think a product is made from whole, nutritious ingredients. However, the nutrition facts and ingredient list will never lie to you. Dietary fiber is listed clearly on the nutrition facts panel and I recommend patients look for foods where the dietary fiber is a significant portion of the total carbohydrates. There are also numerous apps that you can use to research foods, especially ones that do not have an easily accessible nutrition panel.
Some of my go-to sources for fiber include:
- Green Leafy Vegetables: Spinach, kale, and chard are all wonderful options which also include a big dose of vitamins and minerals.
- Beans: Beans are a great source of fiber which can help you not overeat and stay full longer.
- Nuts and Seeds: Pecans, almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, and flaxseed are all great choices.
- Berries: Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, maqui berries and strawberries have a good amount of fiber, are low in natural sugars, and are full of antioxidants.
- Nutreat (of course): These sweet snacks pack 5-8g of fiber per 50g serving. The fiber comes from wonderful, whole sources such as green bananas, berries, flaxseed, coconut and blue agave inulin. Additionally, all of their products are extremely low glycemic, making them diabetes-friendly.
About Dr. Mansukhani
Dr. Renu Mansukhani is a physician in the Washington, DC area specializing in endocrinology and weight management. She serves as a medical advisor to the Nutreat team helping them understand the diabetic journey and ensure that everything they do is rooted in science. She has extensive experience helping type 1 and type 2 diabetics. Renu is a DC area native, and received her medical degree from the Brown University School of Medicine. She did her endocrinology fellowship and weight management training at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In addition to her clinical experience, she has worked in health policy, with a special interest in advocacy around childhood obesity. She has written numerous articles regarding childhood obesity prevention and general nutrition and wellness, and is a physician-advocate for a healthier environment for both adults and kids.
Dr. Mansukhani lives in Arlington, VA with her husband and two daughters. One of her proudest accomplishments other than being a physician and a mom is the fact that she wrote a children's book with her kids. She enjoys watching her kids play sports, and spending time with her goldendoodle, Wrigley. Learn more about her work at https://www.pcweight.com/.