The Standard American Diet will not provide enough fiber, an essential food ingredient. The fiber intake in the US population is between 12.5 grams and 16.8 grams on average, which is way below the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine as listed below.
Depending on age and gender the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies has recommended the following guidelines for adequate daily fiber intake in grams per person.
Institute of Medicine fiber recommendations (gram per person per day)
Males: age 9-13: 21 grams; age14 to 50: 38 grams; age 51 and higher: 30 grams
Females: age 9-18: 25 grams; age 19-50: 21 grams; age 51 and higher: 21 grams
Children: age 1-3: 19 grams; age 4-8: 25 grams
Brief history regarding fiber
Sir Dr. Denis Burkitt, the famous English surgeon, examined bowel movements (stools) of African tribes in comparison to his English countrymen and came to the conclusion in the 1940’s that the Western world needed to remedy constipation problems and cancer of the colon problems by eating more fiber.
He is still right: fiber is mainly treating the constipation (not preventing the cancer), but the chemicals that are also in the vegetables contain a multitude of natural anti-carcinogenic substances, which provide the powerful preventative action against colon cancer and many other cancers. Lycopene, not known at the time of Sir Dr. Burkitt is one of these and is found in tomatoes and tomato products.
Sir Dr. Burkitt’s observation that high bulk foods (like vegetables and green leaves) prevent cancer is as valid today as it was in the mid 1900’s. In the meantime it has become evident that fiber also lowers cholesterol and helps prevent heart attacks and strokes as well.
What are some of the problems with fiber intake?
Here is a typical day for a Standard American diet:
- The average breakfast with two toasts, an egg and sausage. This contains 0.7 grams of fiber. The coffee or tea or juice that is consumed contains no fiber.
- For lunch you may eat a hamburger in a bun and a helping of French fries. There are 2 grams of fiber in the bun and 3.9 grams of fiber in the French fries, a total of 5.9 grams. Alternatively you may want to eat a pepperoni medium pizza: 0 grams of fiber!
- Dinner may consist of one baked potato (3.4 Grams of fiber), beef steak (0 grams of fiber, no matter whether it is an 8 oz. or 10 oz. steak) and mixed vegetables (1 cup, which contains 5 grams of fiber). For dessert you may have a bowl of ice cream (1 gram of fiber). If you eat in a restaurant you also get a bun with butter (0 grams of fiber) plus a small garden salad (0.9 grams of fiber).
- Snacks during the morning: medium oat bran muffin: 5 grams of fiber
- Afternoon snack: cinnamon roll: 1 gram of fiber.
Grand total of the day for Standard American diet: 22.9 grams of fiber. It depends whether or not you consumed the mixed vegetables and the bran muffin. If you did not eat the mixed vegetables and the bran muffin, you may only have consumed 12.9 grams of fiber. If you had pizza for lunch, you only got 7 grams of fiber that day.
Sources of fiber from foods
You can see from these few examples that processed foods tend to have a lot less fiber than vegetables and fruit. Particularly pastas and bread are devoid of fiber, but very rich in calories. So, if we were serious about wanting to increase our fiber content in the food we eat, we need to ensure enough intake of fruit and vegetables that contain fiber. There are many useful websites that list the fiber content per food item: if you look for the fiber content of a medium sized apple using this website, you find that it contains 4 grams of fiber.
This would be a much better snack than an ice cream with no or very little fiber. Here are more fiber suggestions.
How can we increase fiber intake?
We need to think about the whole nutritional equation, how many calories are in food, how much sugar, how much fat and protein. If we want to increase the amount of fiber we take in, we definitely have to watch the sugar content of the food item in question.
For instance ¼ cup of raisins has 2 grams of fiber in it, but also 29 grams of sugar, translating into 130 calories. Conversely, ½ cup of raspberries contains 4.6 grams of fiber and has only 20 calories. This choice is definitely a winner compared to raisins.
Use the Internet to learn about the fiber content of the various foods while you keep an eye on sugar content and calories as well. The idea is to maximize the fiber content in your food intake by cutting out fiber empty foods and adding fiber rich foods as much as possible.
Example of a fiber rich day
- Breakfast: Omelet with green onions, mushrooms and spinach. Garnish this with ½ avocado and two tablespoons of salsa. The spinach/onion omelet with mushrooms has 3 grams of fiber. ½ avocado provides 5 grams of fiber; the salsa adds 0.6 grams of fiber. Breakfast total: 8.6 grams of fiber.
- Lunch: Greek salad with turkey breast (4 grams of fiber). Add a snack of one handful (1.5 oz.) of walnuts as desert: 3 grams of fiber. Lunch total: 7 grams of fiber.
- Dinner: Small salad, salmon with broccoli and 1 grilled tomato. Fruit salad for desert. Salad: 0.9 grams of fiber; salmon: 0 grams of fiber; ¾ cup of cooked broccoli: 7 grams of fiber; grilled tomato: 0.6 grams of fiber; fruit salad: 3 grams of fiber. Dinner total: 11.5 grams of fiber.
- Snacks throughout the day: 1 pear in the morning: 4 grams of fiber; 1 apple in the afternoon: 4 grams of fiber; 1 handful of walnuts: 3 grams of fiber. Snacks total fiber: 11 grams of fiber.
Total of fiber for the fiber rich day: 38.1 grams of fiber.
This is where it is getting interesting. Depending on whether you are a woman aged above or below 50 years or a man aged above or below 50 years, you have different fiber intake requirements as mentioned above. With the fiber rich diet you have exceeded your daily goal easily whether you are a man or a woman above or below 50. You won the race easily. Fiber intake does not mean that you eat fibrous food that tastes like sawdust! This diet example shows you delicious and nutritious food.
But with the American Standard diet you barely reached the goal if you ate your mixed vegetables and the bran muffin and you are a woman above or below the age of 50. 22.9 grams of fiber is not enough for a child between the ages of 4 and 8 and it is definitely not enough for a man above or below the age of 50. This type of math just shows you how deficient our modern Western type food intake is. And if you look at the aspect of it being delicious or even nutritious it leaves a lot to be desired! This is what Sir Dr. Denis Burkitt found when he compared the food intake of civilized English citizens with tribes in the African jungle. He recognized last century that England’s fiber deprived diet compared to the fiber rich diet in Africa was responsible for the much higher colon cancer rates in England. It is only now that we are recognizing the enormity of his investigations.
Cardiovascular significance of high fiber
Apart from reducing colon cancer incidence fiber has also gained recognition for prevention against heart attacks and strokes. It turns out that the enterohepatic pathway is interfered with through the intake of fiber. Cholesterol from bile is bound to fiber in the gut and transported to the sewer instead of being taken up through the enterohepatic pathway, which incudes the portal vein system and the liver. The end result is that triglycerides and LDL cholesterol fall, while HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) is raised, and hardening of the arteries slows down significantly. The patient lives longer, heart attack and stroke rates go down, and there is less disability.
Supplement fiber, if you are not getting enough in food
There is good news. Psyllium husk, Metamucil and any other fiber supplement can help you to reach and surpass your daily fiber goal. There is no danger of overdosing as any surplus simply comes out in your stool. You will notice as you increase your fiber intake that your stool volumes go up. Sir Dr. Burkitt actually weighed the stool of patients in Africa and in England: African tribes had voluminous stools, while people in English had much smaller stool volumes. This is how Sir Dr. Burkitt detected the importance of fiber intake.
Let’s assume you are a male aged 45 years and your diet is a bit better than the average Standard American diet with a daily intake of 25 grams of fiber. Your daily goal is 38 grams of fiber, so you are 13 grams short. You can solve this problem. Get a fiber supplement from the health food store where 1 teaspoon contains about 5 grams of fiber. Be careful: fiber is very thirsty and uses up a lot of water. If you use psyllium husk powder, make sure to add about 1 cup of water to 1 ½ teaspoons of the psyllium husk powder or another similar product. Once you added enough water and stirred well you can drink it down. Between fiber gulps drink some more water to dilute any fiber stuck in your esophagus as it goes down into your stomach. Enough fluid intake is crucial, as the fiber binds fluid in your digestive tract. Repeat this procedure (1 ½ teaspoons of psyllium husk powder with lots of water) at lunchtime. You have now added 15 grams of fiber (2×7.5 grams) to your daily 25 grams of fiber: this brings you to a total of 40 grams of fiber, well above your goal of 38 grams. If you plan to use a fiber supplement it is recommendable that you start with small amounts of fiber (maybe just one teaspoon per day) and increase the amount gradually.
Your alternative would be to switch your diet to the fibre rich diet described above where your basic intake was 38.1 grams, just enough to reach your goal. If you want to play it even safer, you may want to add another handful of walnuts (3 grams of fiber) or ¾ teaspoonful of psyllium husk powder with water to bring your total fiber intake to above 41 grams.
With the introduction of the various fiber products that you can buy at the health food store, it is now much easier to manage your total fiber intake.
In the past few years we heard from cardiologists that heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure could all be helped by much higher fiber intakes. But the public in general has not listened very well to this message. Gastroenterologists also have been urging people to eat more fiber for colon cancer prevention, but many other cancers are also diminished by regular fiber intake. Breast cancer is one of these cancers responding to extra fiber intake. The bottom line is that we all need to pay attention to what we eat and learn how little fiber there is in many foods. The tables can be found online, and for some of you it may come as a surprise that a healthy bowl of tossed salad has only very little fiber. If the total fiber content in our food does not add up to what we need (see table above), supplement with psyllium husk powder or another fiber supplement. Do not forget to drink plenty of liquids. This is not only help for those who experience constipation. It is powerful prevention of heart attacks, strokes and many cancers.