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. Yet, fiber is absolutely essential for good health and a major contributor to a well-balanced diet. So, why is fiber so important, and how do we make sure we get enough of it each day without having to choke down a clumpy orange mixture?
Dietary fiber is well known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation. This is reason enough for me! But the amazing benefits of fiber don’t 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. Another great benefit of this important nutrient is that no animal products contain any fiber, making it a great source of nutrition for all plant-based lovers.
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 (the colon). An important part of understanding dietary fiber is its classifications: soluble or insoluble.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and is 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.
Benefits of A High-Fiber Diet
You may have heard of “gut bacteria” or the “gut microbiome.” But what is it exactly? Well, the gut microbiome is made up of the trillions of microbes that live in our gut, coming from hundreds of species of bacteria. But do not fear—these bacteria are the good guys!! They positively impact many aspects of our health including weight, the immune system, blood sugar levels, and even brain health. When we maintain and feed our good gut bacteria, they reward us by carrying out essential processes that the body simply cannot perform on its own.
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.
Here are the benefits of a high-fiber diet you can actually see and measure:
- 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 lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol levels.
- Bowel health. A high-fiber diet can lower the risk of developing diverticular diseases and reduce the risk of developing 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 (RDA) for women is about 25 grams, while the RDA for men is about 38 grams. This might not seem like a lot, but the average American is getting far less, only about 15 grams per day. Nutritional deficiency 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 many popular fad diets, such as the Keto or Paleo diets, are most likely not getting anywhere near the recommended daily amount of fiber. (In fact, the Paleo diet is really not an accurate depiction of ancient eating habits, as science shows people of the Paleolithic era were actually consuming more than 100 grams of fiber per day, and did not ingest as many animal products as previously thought!) This is because these diets heavily rely upon the use of animal products, which, as we know, contain no fiber at all. These diets are most often used for their 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.
Counting and tracking food and fiber intake is one way to know that you are getting enough fiber. An easier way of doing it is to simply count the total grams of plant foods you eat 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 great sources of fiber include:
- Whole grains such as oats, brown rice, barley, wheat, quinoa
- Fruit such as apples, bananas, mangoes, raspberries, blackberries, avocados
- Starchy vegetables such as potatoes and squash
- Non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, broccoli, peppers (any vegetables!)
- Beans and legumes such as black beans, kidney beans, 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 pasta are other great sources of fiber.
Is it now clear how amazingly beneficial fiber can be? If there’s 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 incorporate a variety of high-fiber plant foods into your cooking every day!