Interesting that a necessary component of our diet with major effects on our health is not considered a nutrient. Dietary fiber — structural components and carbohydrates from plants that the human body cannot digest — is strongly associated with numerous health benefits, according to a new position paper on this topic from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Yet because it doesn’t meet the strict definition of a nutrient, we’ll just call it dietary fiber.

Experts say we have good reason to heed the current advice to “make half your plate fruit and vegetables” and “make at least half your grains whole grains.” Here are some facts:

  • Dietary fiber is only found in plant-based foods. Nuts have fiber; cheese does not. Sweet potatoes have fiber; ham does not. Figgy pudding has fiber; eggnog does not.
  • Higher intakes of dietary fiber are consistently associated with fewer health problems. Considerable evidence shows fewer incidents of heart disease, diabetes and cancer in people who eat diets high in fiber. And people who eat more high-fiber foods tend to be thinner than those who don’t.
  • Dietary fiber protects our arteries and guards against heart disease. Blood pressure and cholesterol numbers tend to be lower in fiber imbibers. One reason might be that high-fiber foods help to prevent “inflammation” — an internal process that accelerates the aging process.
  • Dietary fiber feeds good gut bacteria. Fibers from onions, leeks, garlic, wheat and oats are known as prebiotics; they guard the health of our intestines and even help improve the absorption of nutrients. Other potential prebiotic food sources, according to the AND, include lentils, garbanzo beans, rye and barley.

If a food has a label, you can find out its dietary fiber content. The goal? Women and men experience health benefits with intakes of 25 to 38 grams of dietary fiber a day, respectively. Americans average only about 17 grams, however.

Fiber content in fruit and vegetables varies. A medium orange has about 3 grams of fiber; an apple or a pear with skin has more than 5 grams. A cup of lettuce has 1 gram; a cup of lentils or split peas has 16 grams.

If we add just 7 to 10 grams of fiber to our daily diet, we can lower our risk for heart disease and cancer by 9 percent, says the AND. Here are some ideas:

  • Choose peanut butter on whole grain toast instead of butter on white toast.
  • Coat your cheese ball with chopped nuts and serve with whole grain crackers.
  • Make a pot of lentil, split pea or vegetable soup for your holiday crowd.
  • Roast some carrots, onions and other vegetables along with your Christmas main dish.
  • Slice up apples and oranges to munch on while you bake Christmas cookies.

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It all adds up.