The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Fiber Intake Trends

Fiber Intake Trends

Health and Wellness

May 28, 2012

Americans are still not getting enough fiber in their diet, according to a study from the Medical University of South Carolina. The study, published in a recent issue of theJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that daily fiber intake has not progressed toward national goals during the past decade.

The recommended Adequate Intake for dietary fiber for adults is 25 to 38 g/day (14 g/1,000 kcal/day – or approximately 4 bowls of high fiber cereal). But researchers found that mean daily dietary fiber intake for 1999-2000 was 15.6 g/day, for 2001-2002 intake was 16.1g/day, for 2003-2004 intake was 15.5 g/day, for 2005-2006 intake was 15.8 g/day, and for 2007-2008 intake was 15.9 g/day – all numbers well below recommendations.

There were some notable differences in fiber intake according to health and social factors. For example, participants with obesity (body mass index of 30) consistently reported lower fiber intake than did individuals with normal weight or overweight (14.6 to 15.4 g/day and 15.6 to 16.8 g/day, respectively). Mexican Americans had significantly higher intake in 1999-2000 than non-Hispanic whites (18.0 vs 16.1g/day), but Mexican Americans’ intake did not increase over time (17.7 g/day in 2007-2008). Non-Hispanic blacks had fiber intake of 12.5 g/day at baseline that increased modestly to 13.1 g/day by 2007-2008.

In terms of food categories accounting for fiber intake, most consumers derived their fiber from grains (43.7%), followed by vegetables (20.8%), fruits (13%) and beans and legumes (10.1%) – which is consistent with fiber sources in the U.S. food supply as tracked by the USDA. Mexican Americans get more fiber from beans than other groups.

Study author Dr. Dana King says that there are several possible explanations for why fiber consumption has not increased. One very important explanation is the perception that fiber is not very palatable and might not taste good. Another is that consumers don’t appreciate or understand the benefits of fiber – which include controlling blood sugar level, lowering cholesterol and aiding in weight loss. Additionally, large intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages may be displacing the consumption of other healthier fiber-containing foods in the diet. Yet another explanation is the shift away from home-cooked meals and toward eating more restaurant meals.

“Restaurant meals are often higher in fat and lower in fiber,” says King. “You have to be pretty conscious about seeking out the high fiber choices on menus when you eat out of the house. Often, the whole grain pancakes are listed on the back of the menu. It’s not the norm. And changing the norm is a tall order.”

King also points out that advertising for high fiber products is simply not as appealing as the marketing for other, less nutritious products. When high fiber products are marketed with the message of “this doesn’t taste as bad as I thought it would,” it sends consumers a confusing message, he says.

“Saying your product doesn’t taste like cardboard is not exactly an effective marketing campaign,” says King. “The reality is that most people can’t taste much of a difference between white pasta and whole grain pasta, especially when prepared with a sauce, but they’ve grown accustomed to choosing the product that looks and sounds more appealing, and that’s usually not the high fiber product.”

King says that retailers can give consumers more information about fiber, more information about the benefits of fiber and, perhaps most importantly, ask the manufacturers they work with to make whole grain, high fiber products the default, rather than the alternative.

“We can use some of the same strategies as they have used with smoking, like taxing less nutritious, processed products, and we can make fiber cheap, but if stores stopped offering white buns and made whole grain buns the default choice, consumers would certainly start eating more fiber, and restaurants can go the default route too,” says King.

King’s other ideas to encourage and increase fiber intake include developing an iPhone app that could help consumers count fiber grams, as opposed to calories, as fiber has an important role to play in maintaining a healthy weight, and focusing more marketing on beans. Lastly, public health agencies, manufacturers and nutrition advocates need to increase their efforts to help consumers reach national fiber intake goals and enjoy fiber benefits.