Fiber, can’t see it now, shining and glowing, surrounded with gold, placed on top of the high pedestal of Health Food. Dieticians, weight loss books, and health coaches all ask you if you have enough fiber in your diet. In stores, everywhere, fiber fortified foods line the shelves, boasting fiber content this and insoluble fiber that. But is fiber actually that good for you? What exactly is fiber, anyway? How much is good, and how does it even work?
These are really important questions to ask, and there is no easy answer, no magic pill or formula. The closer we look at each of the component nutrients (fiber is a component nutrient of the macro-nutrient Carbohydrate) the more complicated we make these choices for ourselves. So, let’s talk about fiber, and see whether isolating fiber, and targeting it’s levels in our diets, is the answer to our prayers, the cause of all our woes, or just another nutrient that needs balance within a healthy diet.
So what is fiber anyway, and why oh why do we need it?
From a website, run by nutritionists, who clearly believe that optimal health requires a strong emphasis on fiber.
Fiber is mostly found in plant foods, and is a form of carbohydrate that isn’t digested by your body. Fiber passes through your digestive system (stomach, intestines, colon) relatively intact, and is the reason why sometimes you can identify that little piece of corn, or those black beans you ate, when it’s time to drop them off at the porcelain pool. Generally speaking there are two types of fiber, soluble (which means it dissolves in water) and insoluble. More than anything, fiber is associated with the body’s solid waste, in specific the bulk of it, and sometimes the frequency. But each type of fiber is credited with different effects on the digestive system, metabolism, and overall health.
Soluble fiber is mostly credited with assisting the regulation of blood sugar. Foods eaten with fiber, including foods with higher naturally occurring sugar content, like fruits, will be digested more slowly because the fiber isn’t broken down by the body, whereas sugar otherwise can be absorbed almost immediately. This bundling with fiber slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, which is not only good for diabetics, but also is very handy for curbing your appetite. Soluble fiber is also associated with lowering the LDL, or bad cholesterol levels, because it has been seen to attach to that LDL cholesterol, which then allows your body to eject it with the rest of the waste.
In a curious little paradox, most supplements and powders that you may find to get additional fiber into your diet will be soluble fiber, many actually require you to dissolve them into water, such as Metamucil, and while they are soluble fiber, studies have shown that fiber gotten from these sources does not have the same benefit to cholesterol and blood sugar absorption as when you eat the fiber direct from the plant food source. Go figure.
So, as it turns out the best sources of soluble fiber are: oatmeal, nuts, beans, apples, and blueberries. Sounds like you know what you’re having for breakfast tomorrow, am I right?
Insoluble fiber is mostly beneficial to the digestive system, and is therefore credited with aiding in metabolic health as well. When getting your fiber from a whole plant (like eating an entire apple) the soluble fiber helps with your blood sugar, and the insoluble fiber will help make you feel full. Insoluble fiber is found in things like the casings of seeds and the skins of fruit and veggies– which is why, if you can help it, don’t peel your fruit and veggies, unless you have to (like bananas), or find ways to incorporate them into your diet, as with smoothies. Other good sources of insoluble fiber are things like whole-wheat and brown rice; the insoluble fiber is the dark casing around the grain that takes it from looking white (processed) to whole/brown.
One of the best benefits of fiber, and a plant-based diet, is that by virtue of it being the stuff of bulk, it is considerably more filling. Fibrous foods take longer to eat, often requiring more chewing, and because they don’t break down easily they take longer to digest—all of these things 1) Chewing 2) bulk 3) slow digestion, send signals to the body to indicate that you are full, and leave you feeling full longer. Also, bonus, even though it is a carbohydrate, fiber isn’t digested the same way as other carbohydrates, so it’s become recognized as a dieting miracle nutrient in that you can eat and eat and get full but wont gain weight from it. Remember that “net” carbs craze? That was because of fiber. When your diet has you limit carbs, the number of grams of fiber was often subtracted from the overall carb count, because those aren’t’ actually absorbed, or totally absorbed, by your body and thus don’t count against your total diet budget.
Staying full longer, and getting full from fewer calories, has an obvious benefit when trying to get to or maintain a healthy weight. Maintaining a healthy weight, especially with regulating blood sugar, will have a notable improvement for people with diabetes, or metabolic-syndrome (pre-diabetes). And lastly, increasing the percentage of fruits and vegetables in your diet, while reducing the amount of meats and processed foods, and reducing the amount of excess body weight, will also have a major impact on the health of your heart, which is as good for marathon runners as it is for those with a history of heart disease.
You can expect to feel hungry more often when you don’t eat enough fiber, but what happens when you get too much of it? Well, as it turns out too much fiber can be as bad of a diet habit as not enough.
Too much fiber blocks the absorption of vitamins and minerals, and even some medications. This issue seems to increase when the fiber source comes from fortified foods, such as many breakfast cereals, and pills and powders from your local pharmacist. This can be partially attributed to the gel-like quality of soluble fiber binding with things and taking them through to excrement, without being digested, and is also due to the laxative effect of fiber in the body. When balanced, you are going to the toilet regularly and have lower cholesterol, and when they are out of balance, you may have diarrhea and may not be absorbing your blood pressure medicine as well as your doctor would like.
In another confusing paradox, fiber has the ability to both constipate you and be a laxative, although not generally at the same time, or to the same people. This depends very much on the amount you eat, your body’s ability to break down these complex carbs, and curiously, how soon we introduce these things into our diet. If you switch today from a high processed diet to a raw fruits and veggies diet, don’t be surprised if gas, bloating, and days without going come in tow. It’s best to introduce these things slowly, allowing your gut bacteria and your metabolism to catch up to your diet choices.
Also, the recommendations for the amount of fiber we are told to eat varies depending on which country you are from, your daily calorie intake, body weight, sex, and if you have any chronic health issues. However, in each of these, you’ll note, that North American males under 50 are the only ones recommended a dose above 30 grams, so its safe to conclude that a good fiber consumption level is around 25 grams a day for everyone.
So now that we know we need more fiber in our diet, but not too much, and not too quickly– So how do we get that into our diet? Based on the chart above, we can conclude that most of you, around the world, are getting around 17 grams of fiber a day, and should aim for about 25. So step one, that’s not so bad, and its really fixable, so don’t go piling on the bran cereal just yet.
Some quick tips you can do right now:
- Switch to whole-grain products. Any bread, pasta, baked goods, cereals or other wheat and grain products can easily be swapped out for their whole-wheat and whole-grain siblings.
- Add at least one meal a day that is solely whole plants. This could be a salad, or roasted vegetables, a green smoothie, or just an apple. Another good trick is to swap out those meat proteins for plant proteins like nuts and beans. A good whole-wheat black bean burrito will do the trick.
- AVOID processed foods, supplements, or fiber-added foods. These things are working against your health in many ways, with their salt and calorie content so just leave them on the shelf! Also, maximum benefits are achieved by getting nutrients right from the source—the plants– so pills and powders may increase the fiber on that nutrition facts graphic on the back of the package, but not necessarily enough for your body to interact with that fiber.
- GO SLOW. Adding new things to your diet too quickly can backfire. Increase your fiber intake over a few weeks. When you make a change, like the ones above, make that change and stick with it for a while before you go adding more. Also, make sure you are keeping the gut bacteria balanced with good pre and pro-biotics. When I add more raw greens to my diet, I am always sure to keep Kombucha or half-sour pickles around too.
- Drink plenty of water. Fiber needs moisture, it’s gelly and sticky, and without this it will stick inside you and you’ll get constipated. No fun.
- CROWD OUT. I know I told you to avoid processed foods, but I encourage you not to think about what you shouldn’t eat, like white bread and hot dogs, but instead to think about what you SHOULD EAT, i.e. whole grain pasta, and black bean burritos. That way, if you do still reach for the comfort foods and treats, you know you are still getting an influx of good foods, and as it turns out, from a fiber perspective, its BALANCE more than anything that we want to aim for, not vigilant increase in fiber at all costs.
If you think your diet is significantly lower in fiber a day, or you are prepared to suffer through the transition at lightening speed, see the below chart for foods with more than 7 grams of fiber per serving.
In conclusion, fiber is a great friend to have in the struggle for optimal health. It comes in most of the foods we know we should eat more of (cough, Kale, ahem, cough) and is talked about in smoothie shops and diet programs. What fiber is not is our health-food savior, or our diet wonder-nutrient. Fiber was a curious discovery, nutritionally, because it is naturally high in the foods with the most health benefits: fruits and vegetables. Optimal diets have a wide range of many nutrients, and when you eat mostly vegetables and fruits, and a complimentary small amount of nuts and seeds, and little else, you will naturally have a high fiber diet—that’s high fiber, but not too high. However, seeking out fiber by itself, isn’t the answer, but should be more like a guiding principle: If you aren’t getting enough fiber, it can only be because your diet is composed of processed foods, dairy and meat (or you have a medically mandated diet to avoid fiber such as IBS and Colitis). A diet rich in whole plant foods will be naturally high in fiber, without even trying, whereas a diet high in meat or processed food will be naturally low in fiber. So as we make healthier choices, adding in more fruits and vegetables, we will naturally reduce the amount of room in our stomachs for those other things, and the process will even out at a more natural and most importantly sustainable rate, resulting in better fiber levels too. When it comes to our health, fiber is great, but there’s no magic pill or formula, but the closest we can get involves eating mostly plants, and saying good-bye to the packaged food aisle.
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