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Americans aren't getting enough
fiber in their diet    
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[JULY 19, 2003]  URBANA -- Dietary specialists have been telling us for quite some time that increasing the fiber in our diet can help prevent colon cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, but according to a University of Illinois dietitian, Americans are not doing it.

Colon cancer is among the cancers causing the highest number of fatalities in America. It claims approximately 55,000 lives each year -- more than either breast or prostate cancer. Since colon cancer, in particular, has been linked with diets that are high in fat and low in fiber, it is believed that the opposite, or low-fat, high-fiber diets, will help prevent this type of cancer.

"Currently, most Americans consume 12 to 16 grams of dietary fiber per day," said Kelly Tappenden. "That's about half of what most people should be consuming per day."
Tappenden is a U of I researcher and faculty member in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. She listed the recommended intake of fiber per day for men under age 50 as being 38 grams per day, while women under 50 should be getting 25 grams per day. For men over age 50, 30 grams of dietary fiber is recommended and for women over 50, 21 grams per day.

Since 90 percent of men and women over the age of 78 suffer from diverticulosis (a weakness in the walls of the colon, which can become infected) it may be confusing that the recommended fiber intake is lower for people over age 50, when it would seem that they need the benefits of fiber even more.

Tappenden explained: "The reasoning is that the older we get, the less energy we expend, and the less we tend to eat. Therefore, fiber is still really important for elderly people, but at the end of the day it's not realistic to expect these individuals to consume the same amount as younger people who might be eating 50 percent more food." 


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Insoluble dietary fiber, like that found in wheat bran and brown rice, increases fecal bulk and decreases the length of time that food is in the body. Soluble fibers, like oats, legumes, fruits and vegetables, decrease blood cholesterol and slow glucose absorption, which can help prevent type 2 diabetes. Fiber also has the ability to regulate moisture, preventing both constipation and diarrhea.

Tappenden stressed that reading the nutrition panel on a package of food is vital. Consumers also should become familiar with the dietary fiber content in foods that don't come with nutrition labels on them, such as fruits and vegetables, because the fiber content isn't always what you'd expect.

"An apple, including the skin, has 3 grams of dietary fiber, whereas one cup of lettuce has only one gram, and six to eight slices of cucumber have zero. People think if they have a salad that they're getting all of this fiber, but they're not," said Tappenden.

Tappenden said that the fiber content lingo on labels is regulated. She recommends looking for the words "high fiber" on packaged foods. Those words mean that the fiber content is 5 grams or more.  Foods labeled a "good source" contain 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber. And "more or added fiber" means the food contains at least 2.5 grams, which is still more than the standard serving size of the traditional food.

One last caution, however, from Tappenden is, "People need to add fiber to their diet gradually. They could end up feeling sick if they add too much too quickly."

A good source of information on nutritional content, including fiber, is the University of Illinois' nutritional analysis tool. It can be found online at http://www.nat.uiuc.edu/ by choosing NAT Tool Version 2.0 on that site.

[University of Illinois press release]    

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