Healthy Body

Fiber Is a Gut-Health Super Star—But It May Reduce Heart Disease Risk, Too

High-fiber food is often a cornerstone of conversations about healthy digestion. While fiber isn't considered a nutrient per se, it's the substance in plants that the body can't digest, and it's essential for gut health. Even though 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, evaluated 185 prospective studies and 58 clinical trials with 4,635 adult participants and examined carbohydrate intake, fiber intake, and the related risks for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Research suggests that those who consume the highest amount of fiber were between 15 and 30 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular-related issues than those who consumed the lowest. 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 daily. The daily recommended amounts for fiber are 21 to 25 grams of fiber per day for adult women and 30 to 38 grams a day for adult men, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The analysis concluded that fiber intake correlated significantly with reduced CVD risk and reduced risk of metabolic conditions and cancer. This is great news, but if you're curious, Gaby Vaca-Flores, RD, registered dietitian; and Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA medical center and author with Cambridge University Press of the new book, Recipe for Survival (2022) broke down what exactly a diet high in fiber can do for you.

The long-term benefits of fiber a multi-fold, and they don't exist in a vacuum, says Vaca-Flores. Soluble fiber, found in food like oats, bananas, and potatoes, dissolves in water to become a gel-like substance. Insoluble fiber—common in whole grains, nuts, skins of apples—is the structure in plants that does not dissolve in water and is not digestible by the body, the Cleveland Clinic says. Soluble fiber has been shown to lower one type of cholesterol (LDL) via binding to cholesterol in your small intestine and taking 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 many foods high in fiber is likely also high in plants—which bring a lot of nutrients with them. Plants that are a good source of fiber are also extremely high in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (plant nutrients that are good for the heart), and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that can also help heart health, Dr. Ellis explains. Additionally, many of these foods, like berries, are also antioxidants and anti-inflammatories— both characteristics that have been proven to play a role in preventing heart disease.

If you are worried about eating more fiber (and nutrient-rich food in general), it's important to shift away from judging yourself too harshly. In fact, socioeconomic factors class, race, proximity to food desserts, immigration status all impact people's access to fresh, nutrient-dense foods, and the time to cook and prepare them. However, if you've been looking for an actionable step to take towards lowering your CVD risk, exploring plant-based foods that are high in fiber is a worthwhile place to start.

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