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Is a Fiber Supplement Just as Good as Fiber From Food?

HealthIs a Fiber Supplement Just as Good as Fiber From Food?

Q: I take a daily fiber supplement, but I’m confused about whether it offers the same health benefits as fiber-rich foods. Is getting fiber from a supplement just as good?

It depends on your definition of “good,” said Dr. Denise Millstine, an integrative medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic. If your goal is to improve your bowel movements or reduce some digestive symptoms (like constipation, diarrhea, bloating or cramping), she said, fiber supplements can often help.

But they won’t offer the same vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds found in fiber-rich foods, she noted.

Fiber is a nutrient that our digestive systems can’t break down. This slows the movement of food through the digestive tract, and helps to reduce blood sugar spikes and lower cholesterol. It also bulks up and softens our stool, which can decrease the risk of constipation.

When you take a fiber supplement, all you get is fiber on its own, Dr. Millstine said. But when you consume fiber from a meal, she added, you’re also benefiting from other nutrients. One cup of blueberries, for instance, contains four grams of fiber along with B and C vitamins, potassium, magnesium and more.

These and other important nutrients in fiber-rich foods work together to reduce inflammation and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, said Nicola McKeown, a nutrition research professor at Boston University. Fiber-rich foods also help “maintain a healthy gut,” she said.

Because of that, experts recommend getting as much of your daily fiber requirement — usually no less than 21 to 38 grams per day, depending on your age and sex — as possible from fiber-rich foods. These include fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and whole grains.

One way to ensure you’re meeting your daily goal is to include a fruit or vegetable in every meal, said Julia Zumpano, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. Or you can try boosting the fiber content of some foods, like oatmeal or smoothies, by sprinkling flax or chia seeds onto them, she added.

If you’re still struggling to get enough fiber, though, supplements that come in the form of powders, gummies and capsules can help, experts say. But there are important considerations to keep in mind.

If you have a digestive issue like irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease or diverticular disease (in which tiny pouches form in the colon and can become inflamed or infected), it’s best to consult a doctor or dietitian before taking any fiber supplement, said Megan Rossi, a research fellow in nutrition at King’s College London.

When starting to add supplemental fiber to your diet, go slow, Ms. Zumpano said.

Common forms, like inulin or chicory — which are often used in processed foods like granola or energy bars — “can be pretty rough” on your digestive system, Dr. Millstine said. Some people get cramping and urgent or loose stools.

Ms. Zumpano recommended powder-based fiber supplements like wheat dextrin, psyllium and inulin. These are often sold with no added ingredients and can be mixed into liquids like water, coffee, juices or milks, offering the extra benefit of hydration.

Fiber pills and gummies can also help you meet your daily goal, but they can have drawbacks, Ms. Zumpano said. In some cases, they offer so little fiber per serving that you need to take a lot of them to reach your daily target. If they contain other additives (like sugar or artificial sweeteners, flavors or dyes), you might be consuming more of those ingredients than you’d like.

Other times, she added, the concentration of fiber per serving is so high that it may cause uncomfortable side effects like gas, bloating or stomach cramps.

When adding any fiber supplement to your diet, choose one that contains about three to five grams of fiber per serving, Ms. Zumpano recommended. Once your body adjusts to that amount, you should be able to tolerate more without negative symptoms.

It’s also important to drink plenty of water when taking any fiber supplement, Dr. Millstine said. Paradoxically, taking it with too little liquid can actually cause constipation, she added. And read labels carefully to ensure they don’t contain extra ingredients you may be trying to avoid.

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