Fiber: The Unsung Hero of Nutrition
Imagine unlocking a secret that could revolutionize your health and well-being. This secret isn’t an expensive supplement, but a simple, often overlooked nutrient – fiber.
This article is an introduction to the fascinating world of fiber-rich foods that provide a wealth of benefits for good health.
A Change in Perception
I used to think that losing weight was mostly all about calories. The concept of “calories in, calories out” makes sense, right? And in some ways, it is true.
We’ve all heard the common slogan that to lose weight, all you have to do is, “Eat Less and Move More.”
But achieving a calorie deficit is not the end all be all successful weight loss. Over the long-term, what matters even more is the quality of the foods where those calories come from.
That’s because foods are so much more than the sum of its individual parts.
And there is one nutrient that stands out above all the rest.
It’s one the vast majority of us do not get enough of.
That nutrient is fiber.
Fiber is the key to a healthy style of eating.
What Exactly is Fiber?
Here’s a simple definition of fiber according to the Oxford Dictionary: “Fiber is the part of food that helps to keep a person healthy by keeping the bowels working and moving other food quickly through the body.”
So, is that all fiber really is? Not at all.
Let’s break this down a bit more:
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate. There are three types of carbohydrates that we eat: sugar, starch, and fiber.
Most people know about the first two, sugar and starch. That’s generally what people are trying to avoid when they say “carbs are bad.” But not too many people know that fiber is also a type of carbohydrate.
Fiber is an incredibly healthy form of carbohydrate.
The Two Types of Fiber
It gets much more nuanced than this, but this is a good place to start. Let’s keep it simple.
Fiber can be broken down into two basic types: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber can dissolve and turn into a gel. It’s the type of fiber that can help to lower our cholesterol and lower blood sugars. When you eat an apple, the flesh of the apple is mostly soluble fiber.
An example of a soluble fiber supplement is psyllium, such as Metamucil. Have you ever seen what happens when you leave psyllium in a fluid such as water? It becomes a gel. There are better psyllium supplements than Metamucil though.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. It remains intact and moves completely through our bowels. This is the fiber that adds bulk to our stool. It’s the skin of the apple you just ate.
An example of a food with a lot of insoluble fiber is wheat bran.
You actually get both types of fiber in whole plant foods. Which leads us to our next question:
Where Do You Find Fiber?
All whole-plant foods contain fiber.
In fact, fiber is only found in plant-based foods.
Whole plant-based foods literally have a monopoly on fiber.
That’s not the only thing whole plant-based foods contain. They also have vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, protein (yes protein) and nutrients scientists haven’t even discovered yet.
There’s a nutritional synergy in whole plant-based foods that cannot be replicated in any man-made food. It’s just not possible.
What are Some Benefits of Eating More Fiber?
Here are 10 ways eating more fiber can improve your health:
- Improve your gut and digestive health.
- Help you have more regular bowel movements.
- Help to relieve constipation.
- Reduce and stabilize your blood sugars.
- Significantly reduce your risk for type-2 diabetes.
- Lower your cholesterol.
- Reduce your risk of some forms of cancer.
- Decrease your risk of heart disease.
- Help you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
- Help to reduce inflammation.
Wow! Yes, fiber can do all of that. And more.
As you can see, fiber has a lot going for it in terms of how it affects our health.
But what about the opposite?
What are the Downsides of Not Eating Enough Fiber?
First, a disclaimer: If your doctor has recommended a low-fiber diet because of a medical issue, follow the recommendations of your physician.
One effect of not having enough fiber in your diet is slower bowel movements. This can lead to chronic constipation. But that’s not all.
We could basically reverse all the benefits we just discussed and that would tell you the risks of not getting enough fiber in your diet.
Think about this question: What are the chronic diseases that plague modern day Western societies?
Did you know that two-thirds of deaths in America are caused by three chronic diseases? These are heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Having a poor diet is one of the leading causes of all these.
And the one nutrient that 95% of all Americans do not get enough of in their diet is fiber.
One study showed that if people in America were to increase the amount of fiber in their diet by just 9 grams per day, health care costs would decline by almost 13 billion dollars a year!
9 grams of fiber is the amount in a ½ cup of All-Bran cereal, or 2/3 cup of beans.
Ok, 13 billion dollars is a lot of money. But what really matters is how this affects you.
That brings me to another question.
How Can Getting More Fiber in Your Diet Help You?
Could it help you be more regular, or to lower your cholesterol?
Maybe you want to reduce your risk of a chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.
Maybe you want to improve your gut health.
Did you know that improvements in your gut health will affect everything we discussed so far?
“Focusing on improving your gut health with your diet is one of the most underrated and significant area of making improvements to your health that exists.”
That’s a bold statement. And it’s true.
What’s the Big Deal with Our Gut Bacteria, anyway?
When I say bacteria, what’s the first thing you think about? It’s probably not good, and for good reason.
The general history of bacteria in medicine is rooted in eliminating disease and human suffering.
The consequences of the wrong bacteria in the wrong place at the wrong time are well known and documented. Stamping out pathogenic bacteria has been a driver of medical innovations for over a century.
From all-purpose cleaners to kitchen cleaners and hand sanitizers, the list of anti-bacteria products is long.
The “germ theory of disease” shows us that microorganisms called pathogens are the direct cause of many diseases. Medications such as antibiotics can cure bacterial infections.
A Shift in the View From “Bacteria is Mostly Bad,” to “Bacteria is Also Incredible”
Over the last decade there has been an explosion of research into the bacteria that lives inside and outside of our bodies.
You may have heard of the Human Genome Project.
The Human Genome Project was an international research project that mapped the entire human genome. It was thought that mapping the human genome would lead to the discovery of ways to eradicate many human diseases.
Only it didn’t turn out that way.
In fact, what it did show is that we are all, as a human species, 99.999% the same. Amazing!
A Shift from the Human Genome to the Gut Microbiome
One result of the Human Genome Project was a technology known as DNA sequencing.
This technology allowed for further research into the DNA of microorganisms, such as bacteria.
In 2007 the National Institute of Health began the Human Microbiome Project. The purpose of this research project was to develop an understanding of how the microbiome affects human health.
The current scientific consensus, based on the accumulation of research from the Human Microbiome Project, has literally transformed our understanding of human health.
What we know now has given the common expression “trust you gut” a whole new meaning.
What are Some Ways the Good Gut Bacteria Can Affect Your Health?
Good gut bacteria will:
- Help you have a strong immune system. 70% of the immune system is in the gut.
- Help control your mood and how you feel. 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut.
- Produce vitamins such as vitamin K and several B vitamins.
- Produce chemicals our cells need to be healthy such as Short-Chain Fatty Acids.
- Prevent the invasion of bad microbes in the gut wall, thus preventing “leaky gut.”
If Good Gut Bacteria are So Important, How Can We Cultivate More of It?
Bacteria need food to survive. Entire species of bacteria in our gut will live or die based on the foods we provide for them.
This brings us back to fiber.
You’ve probably heard that most fiber is indigestible. Or that fiber simply moves through us, and some of it does.
But fiber has another super important purpose. And it turns out, it’s one of the most important aspects of human health.
Fiber feeds our good gut bacteria.
This one of the many reasons why fiber is the key to a healthy diet.
A diet with enough fiber from a diversity of plant-based foods leads to the proliferation of the good gut bacteria. This will give us the quality of life we’re all aiming for.
What are the Best Ways to Feed Your Good Gut Bacteria?
- Eat a diet with an abundance of fiber-rich foods.
- Consume foods rich in polyphenols such as fruits and vegetables.
- Use healthy fats such as olive oil, flaxseed, nuts, & seeds.
- Have fish that’s rich in omega-3 once or twice a week.
- Incorporate foods with resistant starch into your diet.
- Have fermented foods that contain live active cultures.
Of these, the best place to start is with #1: Eat a diet with an abundance of fiber-rich foods.
Fiber is the foundation of a healthy diet that feeds your good gut bacteria.
How Much Fiber Do We Need?
The average American gets about 15 grams of fiber in their diet per day.
The recommendation is 25 grams a day for women and about 35 grams a day for men.
These recommendations are based on an average of 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories in your diet. For example, if you consume 2,000 calories per day you should get around 28 grams of fiber.
A Word of Caution About Increasing Fiber in Your Diet
After reading about all the benefits of getting more fiber-rich foods in your diet, you might be tempted to run out and buy as many of these foods as you can.
But before you do, it’s a good idea to first see where you are.
Increasing the fiber in your diet too much at one time can lead to gas, bloating, cramping, and looser stools.
These most always subside after you are consistent with more fiber over time.
The best rule of thumb is this: “Go Low and Slow.”
Let’s look at a simple strategy to increase your fiber intake.
First, Find Out Where You Are
The best way to do this is to keep a food journal so that you can see just how much fiber you are getting every day.
There are several food journaling apps to help you with this.
Keeping track of your foods with a simple paper food journal is a great option too.
Keep track of everything you eat and drink for 3-days. Add up the total grams of fiber for the three-day period, and then divide by three. This is the average grams of fiber you are getting each day.
If you would like to use an app but don’t know where to start, here are my recommendations for apps. They both have free versions you can use for this exercise.
Free Food Journaling Apps:
How to “Go Low and Slow” with Increasing Your Fiber
Here is a simple method to increase the fiber in your diet without going overboard with too much too soon.
The Go Low and Slow Method: Work on increasing your fiber one meal at a time, one week at a time.
Based on the results of your 3-day food journal, find which meal has the lowest amount of fiber.
Is it breakfast, lunch, or dinner? This is the meal you can start with. If you don’t want to start with this one that’s ok too. Pick one meal time and stick with it for the week.
Aim for increasing your fiber intake 8 -10 grams for this meal each day for the entire week.
Here are some ideas for how to do this:
- Breakfast: 1/2 cup of old-fashioned oatmeal with a tablespoon of chia seed and 1/2 cup of fruit = 11 grams of fiber.
- Lunch: Having a salad for lunch is a great way to add a variety of plant-based foods to your diet. Having a sandwich? Add several veggies to your sandwich such as avocado, greens, onion, and tomato. Have you ever tried a chick pea salad sandwich? It’s delicious and the leftovers keep well.
- Dinner: Here is the simplist way to add fiber to your dinner meal. Make sure at least 75% of your plate is plant-based. What does that look like? Check out the Harvard Healthy Eating plate.
- Snacks: Instead of chips or a pastry, snack on some fruit like an apple with peanut butter. Or carrots and your favorite dip.
Continue to keep a food journal as you make these changes.
After your week of eating more fiber for the meal you chose, ask yourself these questions:
- How are you feeling?
- Have you noticed any physical or mental changes?
It’s ok if you aren’t seeing any big changes. Remember, we’re starting low and going slow.
The ultimate goal is to stick with the changes you’re making.
Once you’ve completed the week, focus on the next meal you want to improve for the following week. Be sure to stick with the changes you’ve already made.
After about a month of doing this, you will have created a new fiber-rich gut friendly diet for yourself.
Putting it All into Perspective
In this article we’ve looked at why getting more fiber in your diet is important and the benefits of eating more fiber can have on your gut health.
We also looked at how much fiber you should aim for a day, and some simple strategies to help you get there.
Remember, if you are just starting out, take the Go Low and Slow approach. The habits you create and maintain long-term are what really matters.
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There’s so much more to come!