If you’re trying to lose weight, you could count your calories, keep track of precisely how much salt and sugar your eat, and make sure you hit certain targets for protein, carbohydrates, cholesterol and the various types of fat. Or you could set all of that aside and concentrate on just one thing: Eating at least 30 grams of fiber each day.
In a yearlong clinical trial involving 240 obese people who had metabolic syndrome, those who focused on fiber lost almost as much weight as those who followed the American Heart Association’s extremely detailed dietary recommendations. The average difference between the two groups — a mere 1.4 pounds — was too small to be considered statistically significant, according to a study published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The researchers were quick to note that the American Heart Association diet is certainly effective — but it’s not necessarily user-friendly.
The AHA advises dieters to:
- Eat at least 30 grams of high-fiber foods each day.
- Eat fish twice a week.
- Get protein from vegetables and lean meats.
- Get 50% to 55% of calories from carbohydrates, 15% to 20% of calories from protein, and 30% to 35% of calories from fat (including just 7% of calories from saturated fat and less than 1% from trans fats).
- Eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day.
- Minimize sugar, sodium and sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Drink no more than a moderate amount of alcohol.
If your head is spinning, you’re not alone. “The various AHA dietary recommendations may create adherence challenges,” as the study authors so politely put it.
They wondered what would happen if they emphasized the first item on that list and let the rest of them go. The team had reason to think it might work: A 2012 study in Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who were advised to cut back on sitting and step up their consumption of fruits and vegetables improved their diet and exercise habits more than people who got specific instructions about increasing their physical activity and cutting back on saturated fats.
‘Permissive’ diets may be more successful than ‘restrictive’ ones
The researchers recruited 240 volunteers between the ages of 21 and 70 who met the criteria for metabolic syndrome, a condition that puts people at risk for various cardiovascular problems. All of them had a body mass index between 30 and 40, which qualified them as obese. These volunteers were randomly assigned to follow the AHA diet or to eat at least 30 grams of fiber a day through foods (not supplements). None was given any advice about physical activity.
Most people were able to stick with their assigned plan for the full year — 10% of people in the fiber group dropped out of the study, along with 13% of those in the AHA diet group.
All of those who stuck with the study lost at least a few pounds. At the end of the year, volunteers who followed the AHA diet were 6 pounds lighter, on average, while those in the fiber group had lost an average of 4.6 pounds. The AHA dieters also saw a 0.4-inch reduction in waist circumference, on average. Those in the fiber group wound up with an extra 0.1 inches around their middles, on average.
Members of both groups had lower blood pressure, lower total cholesterol and lower triglycerides. Both groups also reduced daily calories, with the AHA dieters recording a larger average decline (465 fewer calories per day) than their counterparts in the fiber group (200 fewer calories per day).
However, those in the fiber group did a better job of adding fiber to their diets. Their daily intake rose by 4.7 grams (to a total of 23.5 grams), compared with a 1.3-gram increase for those in the AHA group (to a total of 20.8 grams). On average, Americans eat just 16 grams of fiber a day.
The researchers were heartened to see that the people told to focus on fiber adopted other healthful eating habits too, such as substituting white meat for red meat. These healthier food choices seemed to “crowd out” unhealthier options, the team said.
Based on the findings, the researchers suggest that a “permissive” dietary plan, like focusing on increasing fiber, may produce more beneficial effects than a “restrictive” plan, like reducing saturated fat.
“I think we have to change the paradigm about recommendations,” study author Dr. Yunsheng Ma, an associate professor in the division of preventive and behavioral medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, told Time. “Telling people to reduce this or reduce that is just too hard to do.”
Six ways to eat more fiber
Feeling inspired to eat more fiber? Here are six tips to get started:
1. Go for whole grains whenever possible.
Check the ingredient list to make sure the whole grain is the first or second ingredient on the list. Products that say “100% wheat” or “multigrain” are not usually whole grain.
- 2 slices of whole-wheat bread = 4 grams of fiber
- 1 cup of cooked brown rice = 4 grams of fiber
- Reduced-Fat Triscuit crackers = 3 grams
2. Choose the right breakfast cereals.
Some cereals have little whole grain. And some whole grain cereals are loaded with unnecessary sugar.
- ½ cup Fiber One = 14 grams of fiber
- 1 cup Raisin Bran = 7.5 grams of fiber
- 1 cup Frosted Shredded Wheat Spoon Size = 5 grams
- 1 cup Quaker Squares Baked in Cinnamon = 5 grams
- ¾ cup cooked oatmeal = 3 grams
*Recommended serving sizes.
3. Eat beans a few times a week.
Beans offer more fiber than most plant foods, plus they’re loaded with healthy plant protein.
- 1 cup of canned minestrone soup = about 5 grams fiber
- 1/2 cup vegetarian or fat-free refried beans, used to make microwave nachos = about 6 grams
- 1/4 cup kidney beans, added to a green salad = 3 grams fiber
- Bean burrito at Mexican restaurant (or made at home) = 8 grams
4. Have several servings of fruit every day.
You can add it to your morning meal, enjoy it as a snack, and garnish your dinner plate with it. Or have it with — or instead of — dessert.
- 1 large apple = 4 grams of fiber
- 1 banana = 3 grams
- 1 pear = 4 grams
- 1 cup strawberries = 4 grams
5. Every day, stir a tablespoon of ground flaxseed into your smoothie, soup, casserole, etc.
One tablespoon will boost your daily fiber by 3 grams. Flaxseed contains a balance of soluble and insoluble fiber, too.
6. Have several servings of vegetables every day.
Include a vegetable with lunch, have raw veggies as an afternoon snack or pre-dinner appetizer, and enjoy a big helping with dinner. Make a point of enjoying vegetarian entrees several times a week.
- 1 cup carrot slices, cooked = 5 grams of fiber
- 1 cup cooked broccoli = 4.5 grams
- 1 cup raw carrots = 4 grams
- 1 sweet potato = 4 grams
- 1 cup cauliflower, cooked = 3 grams
- 2 cups raw spinach leaves = 3 grams