Fiber! Fiber! Fiber! Eat more fiber! We hear it all the time, don’t we? For many of us, when we think about adding more fiber to our diet, we imagine our grandmother mixing her nightly elixir of Metamucil and water. Yum. Fiber is absolutely essential for good health and a well-balanced diet. So, how do we make sure we get enough fiber each day without having to choke down a clumpy orange mixture, and why is it so important?
Dietary fiber is well known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation. This is reason enough for me! However, the amazing benefits of fiber do not end there. Fiber – our magical fourth macronutrient – can help us to lower and manage our weight, as well as significantly lower the risk of conditions such as colon cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, to name a few.
So, what exactly is dietary fiber?
Dietary fiber is the part of plant foods that are not digested or absorbed by the body. It stays relatively intact as it passes through the stomach, small intestine and large intestine (a.k.a. the colon). Dietary fiber is classified as either soluble or insoluble.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and it found in foods such as oats, beans, citrus fruits, apples, carrots, and barley. Soluble fiber can help to lower cholesterol and glucose levels.
Insoluble fiber helps to make stools softer and easier to pass. It can be found in vegetables such as cauliflower and potatoes. This type of fiber helps to support insulin resistance and can help prevent conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
Most plant foods contain both types of fiber in varying amounts. To reap all of their amazing benefits, it is important to eat a wide variety of fiber-containing foods. It is important to note that no animal products contain any fiber.
Benefits of A High-Fiber Diet
You may have heard of 'gut bacteria' or the 'gut microbiome'. Well, the gut microbiome s comprised of the trillions of microbes that live in our gut that come from hundreds of species of bacteria. This is a good thing! These bacteria are absolutely vital for many aspects of our health including weight, a high-functioning immune system, controlling our blood sugar levels, and even brain health. When we maintain and feed our good gut bacteria, they reward us by carrying out some essential processes that the body simply cannot perform on its own.
Simply put, fiber feeds those good gut bacteria and allows them to grow. These bacteria then produce short-chain fatty acids. These short-chain fatty acids include acetate, propionate, and butyrate. Their job is to feed the cells of the colon. While none of this may sound particularly exciting, it definitely is! When the SCFA go to work, there can be a significant reduction in gut inflammation and digestive disorders such as IBS, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
While fiber is at work doing its job in the body, more benefits you can see, and measure include:
· Improved regularity. Since fiber softens stool, it makes it easier to pass and therefore reduces constipation. If you experience loose stool, fiber may help make it more solid by attaching to water and making it bulkier.
· Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Since high-fiber foods tend to be more filling, you are more likely to feel satisfied after eating and less likely to over-eat less nutrient-dense food. Many high-fiber foods contain fewer calories and therefore can be eaten in larger quantities.
· Heart health and lower cholesterol. Studies have shown that a high-fiber diet can reduce blood pressure and inflammation, as well as lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol levels.
· Bowel health. A high-fiber diets can lower the risk of developing diverticular diseases as well as reduced risk of hemorrhoids. Studies have also shown that eating adequate fiber can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
· Controlling blood sugar. A diet rich in fiber can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. If someone is living with diabetes, it can help to slow the absorption of sugar in the blood and keep blood sugar levels under control.
How Much Fiber is Enough?
Currently, the recommended daily amount of fiber for women is about 25 grams, while the RDA for men is about 38 grams. This does not seem like a lot, but the average American is getting far less, at about 15 grams per day. This is a big problem in our country as we see our life expectancy decline due to the common occurrence of chronic diseases.
People who follow a “standard American diet” or other fad diets such as the Keto or Paleo diets, for example, are most likely not getting anywhere near the recommended daily amount of fiber. This is because these diets focus heavily on the use of animal products, which as we know contain no fiber at all. These diets are most often used for the weight-loss benefits; however, they do not contribute to long-term health. Even when people lose weight on these diets, their restrictive nature makes them unsustainable, inevitably leading to weight gain again in the future. On the subject of the Paleo diet, the science shows that people of the Paleolithic era were consuming 100 grams or more of fiber per day! This goes to show that they were not relying as heavily on animal products as we thought.
Counting and tracking food and fiber intake is one way to know that you are getting enough fiber. Another simpler, easier way of doing it is to simply count the amount of plant foods you get each day. Think – plant diversity! It is important to get a large variety of plants in our diet to ensure we get adequate amounts of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
If you are someone who is getting less than the RDA of fiber, it is important to start slow! Many high-fiber foods are known to cause gas and sometimes bloating. This response is totally normal and healthy! If you ease these foods into your diet slowly over time, you will reduce the severity and eventually feel completely comfortable with these foods as your body adapts. Some amazing sources of fiber include:
· Whole grains such as oats, brown rice, barley, wheat, quinoa
· Fruit such as apple, banana, mango, raspberries, blackberries, avocado
· Starchy vegetables such as potatoes and squash
· Non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, broccoli, peppers (any vegetables!)
· Beans and legumes such as black, kidney, pinto beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils
· Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, almond, chia, flax, and hemp seeds
A Few More Tips:
· Snack smarter. Snack on nuts, fruit, vegetables with hummus
· Say no to overly processed foods and high sugar foods
· Drink plenty of water. Fiber works best when it is combined with water
· Switch to whole grains even in baking. Whole wheat flour, almond flour and oat flour are great replacements for white flour. Whole grain breads and pastas are other great sources of fiber.
Is it now clear how amazingly beneficial fiber can be? If there is one nutrient we should all be focusing on, it is surely fiber! Be sure to increase your intake slowly, experiment with new and fun recipes, and get the family involved. The opportunities for creative and colorful meals are truly endless when you focus on a variety of high-fiber plant foods every day!