The TV ads say that we need more fiber. Doctors tell you that you need more fiber. Product packaging promotes having more fiber than the other guys. So what exactly is fiber and why should we care?
Dietary fiber is a plant-based nutrient that passes through your digestive system relatively intact; it’s not digested into sugars like most carbohydrates. It is sometimes referred to as bulk or roughage and since it is not digested or otherwise broken down like most foods we consume, so what goes in your body essentially exits in the same form. Although it might not contribute much in the way of nutrients, what fiber does in the process of moving through your system is where the benefits come in.
Fiber is important to digestion and regularity, weight management, cholesterol maintenance, blood sugar regulation, and more. It has also been linked to longevity and decreasing the risk of cancer.
Blood sugar regulation is another benefit of a high fiber diet. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine published a meta-analysis of studies about the relationship between fiber and blood glucose (blood sugar) levels. Findings show that higher fiber intake can reduce blood glucose levels during the standard fasting blood glucose test (a test of blood sugar levels after an overnight fast). Glycated haemoglobin, which occurs when proteins in the blood mix with blood sugar, is related to an increased risk of diabetes complications, and levels of that decrease with an increase in fiber, and soluble fiber is particularly helpful in that regard.
Cancer prevention is a hot topic among medical professionals and there are some differing opinions about the effectiveness of fiber in fighting cancer. The National Cancer Institute says that fiber does not reduce the risk of cancer to a significant degree, but the British Journal of Medicine published a report based on multiple studies regarding fiber and a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.
A more recent study suggests that the effectiveness of fiber is determined by the individual’s type and amount of gut bacteria. In the lower colon, the fiber reacts with bacteria and can sometimes ferment into a chemical called butyrate. A high fiber diet can encourage the growth of bacteria, which may cause cancer cells to self-destruct.
Some scientists think that fiber could actually help people live longer. One recent study suggests that cereal fiber, from foods like cereal, whole-grain bread, and pasta, is especially effective. Over a 14-year period, those who ate the most cereal fiber were 19 percent less likely to die than those who ate the least. A meta-analysis of relevant studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded, “high dietary fiber intake may reduce the risk of total mortality.”
For those who want to add more fiber to their diet, it is recommended that they start out slowly, adding around 5 grams of fiber a day for 2 weeks, according to the University of Michigan. Boosting your fiber intake too quickly can cause cramps, bloating, or diarrhea. The recommendation also includes a balance of two non-caffeinated drinks for each one you consume. Since caffeine is a diuretic it causes a loss of fluids and can increase constipation. Here are some recommended tips for a beneficial high fiber diet:
- Start your day with bran cereal or oatmeal and berries
- Add legumes or beans to your lunch salad or soup, or try a meatless burger made with beans or lentils.
- Dinner should include more high-fiber vegetables like broccoli, corn, brown rice, or whole-wheat pasta.
- Add fruit to every meal, especially berries.
- Take dietary supplements that are high in fiber.
Low fiber diets may be required for those with medical conditions, like those undergoing radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery, so they need to give their digestive system a rest. They might only need such a low fiber diet for a short time while others need a longer time because of conditions like diverticulitis, Chrone’s disease, or ulcerative colitis.
For those on low fiber diets, refined grains, ripe melons, peaches, bananas, apricots, and many cooked vegetables are still OK, but they should consult with their doctor to be sure of their individual needs. They definitely need to avoid those high fiber foods noted earlier, as well as spicy and fried foods, processed meat, caffeine, nuts, and cocoa products.
Two Types of Fiber
Fiber is generally categorized as either soluble or insoluble. Good sources of soluble fiber include beans, lentils, oatmeal, peas, citrus fruits, blueberries, apples, and barley. The soluble fiber in these foods includes gum, pectin, and mucilage. They dissolve in water and in the body they become a gel-like substance.
Good sources of insoluble fiber include foods with whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, brown rice, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Some foods, like nuts and carrots, are good sources of both types of fiber. Although whole wheat flour and wheat bran contain gluten which is an anti-nutrient, they need to be included in the list for those who can tolerate them. I don’t recommend anything with gluten in it for those with any kind of digestive issue, but more especially for folks with autoimmune issues.
Insoluble fiber like cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin mostly retains its shape while passing through the digestive system.
According to the Institute of Medicine, men under the age of 50 should consume 38 grams of fiber each day and older men 30 grams. Women under 50 should consume 25 grams a day and over 50 years of age the recommendation is 21 grams. According to the Institute, most Americans do not consume enough fiber.
Benefits of Fiber
Both soluble and insoluble fibers have health benefits. Insoluble fiber speeds up the digestive process, maintaining regularity and helping to avoid constipation.
Psyllium husk is a fiber that draws water into your intestines to help fecal bulk and soften stool, making it easier to pass. Psyllium husk is also thought to help relieve loose stool by absorbing water, making your stool more solid.
Soluble fiber helps to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood and helps to decrease blood glucose levels (blood sugar).
Heart health is improved because the digestion of fiber requires bile acids, which are partly made of cholesterol. The liver pulls the cholesterol from the blood to create that bile acid and in doing so it reduces the levels of LDL cholesterol, the bad stuff.
Flaxseed is also a commonly used fiber to help reduce LDL cholesterol and help prevent constipation, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other medical conditions.
Glucomannan is another dietary fiber and is derived from the root of the konjac plant. It works in the stomach and intestines by absorbing water to form a bulky fiber and may also slow the absorption of sugar and cholesterol from the gut, reducing cholesterol levels and controlling sugar levels. It is one of my favorite fibers because of its impact on constipation, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
Acacia gum is a soluble fiber that is commonly used as a medicine taken orally for diabetes, obesity, and irritable bowel syndrome. It is also used as a prebiotic to promote “good” bacteria in the intestine and to remove toxins from the body. As a source of dietary fiber, it also tends to make people feel full, so they might stop eating sooner than they might otherwise, which can lead to weight loss and lower cholesterol levels.
Inulin is a type of fermentable fiber that is found naturally in the roots of many foods, such as whole wheat, onions, garlic, and artichokes, and is commonly extracted from chicory root and added to foods. Inulin is fermented by bacteria that normalize the colon and is considered a prebiotic, which may improve gastrointestinal health as well as potentially enhance calcium absorption.
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