An opening line from almost any nutritionist includes some concern for us to get plenty ot the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and oh, yes, fiber. It seems to me that most discussions about healthy eating spend more time weighing and balancing the first three groups, with little emphasis on fiber.
Still, fiber is a vitally important constituent of a good diet, and I think that paying more attention to what it is, why it’s important, and how to get it, and how it enhances our good health could help many people to choose foods with more natural fiber, and thus get healthier in a wide variety of ways.
What is Fiber?
Dietary fiber, also known as roughage, is the indigestible part of plant foods – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes — that travels through our digestive system, is not digested along with the other food components. Rather, it passes relatively intact, absorbing water on its way through the stomach, small intestine and colon and then out of the body.
Fiber is commonly classified into two types, which can be thought of as “flush and scrub.” Soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, is especially helpful with removing toxins from the body. Foods with large amounts of soluble fiber cause us to chew thoroughly, slowing our eating and helping us to feel fuller while eating less. Our digestion slows so that nutrients can be absorbed more evenly and slowly, and the rate of sugar absorption is slowed. Flush.
Insoluble fiber, scrub, doesn’t dissolve in water, but works by scrubbing the digestive lining, and also helps compel elimination. It also helps to prevent microbes from producing substances which can lead to colorectal cancer and other digestive ills.
What are the Best Sources of Fiber?
The amount of soluble and insoluble fiber varies in different plant foods, so it’s important to eat a wide variety of high-fiber foods and lots of them – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and other legumes are rich sources of both soluble and insoluble fibers
Here’s the bad news. Refined or processed foods, such as canned fruits and vegetables and pulp-free juices are much lower in fiber. The processing of grains removes their outer coat (bran) from the grain removing most of the fiber, even in flour products that are labelled “whole grain.” Meat, eggs, and, dairy, have no fiber.
What are the Benefits of a High Fiber Diet?
The benefits are numerous. A high-fiber diet:
– Normalizes bowel movements. Dietary fiber increases the weight and size of your stool and softens it. A bulky stool is easier to pass, thus decreasing your chance of constipation. If your tendency is to have loose, water stools, fiber may help to solidify the stool, because it absorbs water and ands bulk to stool.
– Helps maintain bowel health. A high-fiber diet may lower your risk of developing hemorrhoids and small pouches in your colon (diverticular disease. Studies have shown that a high-fiber diet lowers likely lowers the risk of colorectal cancer. Some fiber is fermented in the colon, which assists the growth of positive bacteria. Thus, it is considered a pre-biotic.
– Lowers cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber found in beans, oats, and flaxseed may help lower total blood cholesterol levels by lowering low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol levels. Studies have shown that high-fiber foods may have other heart-health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation.
– Helps control blood sugar levels. In people with diabetes, fiber – particularly soluble fiber – can slow the absorption of sugar and help improve blood sugar levels. A healthy diet that includes insoluble fiber may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is important information given that approximately 50% of adults 50 and over are now pre-diabetic, insulin resistant, or diabetic. It’s all about the diet, pure and simple.
– Aids in achieving a healthy weight. High-fiber foods tend to be more filling than low or no-fiber foods, so you can eat less and stay satisfied longer. They tend to take longer to eat and to be less “energy dense,” which means that they have fewer calories for the same volume of food.
– Helps you live longer and more vibrantly. Studies suggest that increasing your dietary fiber intake is associated with a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and all cancers.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is woefully low in dietary fiber. Consequently, many people regard their primary source of fiber as something that comes in a pharmaceutical or supplement jar –Metamucil, Citrucel, and FiberCon — to name a few popular brands. These products may be useful to “bridge a gap” while people learn to add more whole plant foods to their diets, but they do not provide close to the same levels of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients as natural fiber-containing foods do.
People who are allergic to some high-fiber foods can find it difficult to get the right amount of fiber. However, with such a wide variety of fiber-rich foods available, it is not difficult to find those that don’t cause a reaction.
Still other people complain of gassiness when they begin to add more high-fiber foods to their diet. This is a temporary condition which will improve once the digestive system adjusts to a new way of doing things. A little gassiness is not a reason to give up what can be a major improvement in many areas of health.