High fiber foods are good for your heart, here’s why

HHigh-fiber foods are often the cornerstone of conversations about healthy digestion. Although fiber is not considered a nutrient on its own, it is the plant substance that the body cannot digest and is essential for gut health. While you may associate fiber with a happy belly, it’s also good for your long-term heart health.

A 2019 meta-analysis published in the medical journal The Lancet, assessed 185 prospective studies and 58 clinical trials with 4,635 adult participants and examined carbohydrate intake, fiber intake, and associated risks of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Research suggests that those who consumed the highest amount of fiber were between 15 and 30 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular problems than those who consumed the least. There was also a reduced incidence of metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancers between the two ends of the spectrum. The greatest reduction in CVD risk was seen in participants who consumed between 25 and 29 grams per day. Recommended daily amounts of fiber are 21 to 25 grams of fiber per day for adult women and 30 to 38 grams per day for adult men, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The analysis concluded that fiber intake was significantly correlated with a reduced risk of CVD and a reduced risk of metabolic diseases and cancer. That’s great news, but if you’re curious, Gaby Vaca-Flores, RD, Registered Dietitian; and Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author with Cambridge University Press of the new book, Recipe for survival (2022) explained what a high fiber diet can do for you.

The long-term benefits of fiber are manifold, and they don’t exist in a vacuum, says Vaca-Flores. Soluble fiber, found in foods like oats, bananas, and potatoes, dissolves in water to become a gel-like substance. Insoluble fiber — common in whole grains, nuts, apple skins — is the plant structure that doesn’t dissolve in water and isn’t digestible by the body, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Soluble fiber has been shown to lower a type of cholesterol (LDL) by binding to cholesterol in your small intestine and moving it through your digestive tract and out of your body. This prevents cholesterol from entering your bloodstream.

Last but not least, Dr. Hunnes says that a diet with lots of fiber-rich foods is likely also rich in plants, which bring lots of nutrients with them. Plants that are a good source of fiber are also extremely high in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (heart-healthy plant nutrients) and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that can also support heart health, says Dr. Ellis. Plus, many of these foods, like berries, are also antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, two characteristics that have been shown to play a role in preventing heart disease.

If you’re worried about eating more fiber (and nutrient-dense foods in general), it’s important not to judge yourself too harshly. In fact, socio-economic factors, class, race, proximity to food desserts, immigration status all impact people’s access to fresh, nutrient-dense foods, as well as the time needed to cook and prepare them. However, if you’re looking for a concrete step to take to reduce your risk of CVD, it’s worth starting by exploring fiber-rich plant-based foods.

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