Fiber helps us maintain a healthy gut. But it isn’t just about pooping better. Fiber benefits our overall health too. Only about 5% of Americans get the recommended amount of in their diet. Given all the benefits, we really need to do better than this.
Reviewing Eating Habits with A Dietitian Is A Good Idea
I just recovered from a sudden and unexpected diverticulitis attack. I don’t get these flareups often, thank goodness. But when I do, I am down for several days with gut pain and gastrointestinal issues. I won’t bore you with the details though.
However, these attacks have been hitting me harder lately. This prompted me to go visit with my dietitian to see if I could tweak my eating habits to prevent these from happening. Not sure if it is good news or bad news, but she said I am doing everything right. These flare ups just happen sometimes, I guess.
But during my visit with her we reviewed my fiber intake. As a result, I have been thinking about fiber ever since my chat with her. It is so very important for our gut and overall health. So, I thought I would sift through the current science and write a blog post dedicated to this macro-nutrient for Nutrition Month.
So, lets talk about why you need fiber and how much you should be getting in your diet.
What is Fiber?
We have all heard about dietary fiber, but what exactly is it?
Fiber is the part of a food that we can’t digest. They are a bunch of very complex carbohydrate molecules that can’t be broken down by digestive enzymes.
Yes, fiber is a carbohydrate. So, not all carbs are bad for you and you shouldn’t eliminate them completely from your diet. There are some carbs that we need.
But, unlike other carbohydrates, fiber cannot be broken down into basic sugar molecules. And, in fact, fiber helps us regulate other sugar molecules in our body. As you will read below, it is one of the many benefits.
There are two types: Soluble and Insoluble
Soluble fiber is the part that dissolves in the water in your gut. This is one reason that it is important to drink lots of water during the day and stay hydrated. Dissolved fiber sits in your gut where your healthy gut bacteria go to work at fermenting it. While one of the by-products is gas making you fart, there are other great things produced too. These fermented by-products are called prebiotic fiber that have many benefits, as we will see below.
Insoluble fiber can not be dissolved in water, but they do absorb water. These molecules travel through our gut in bulk. This helps prevent and ease constipation. Regular bowel movements are important for us to get rid of other waste products in our stools.
Some insoluble fiber can be fermented in the intestines. This further helps us control the other types of carbohydrates in our foods and helps prevent diabetes. However, the contribution of insoluble fiber fermented products is much smaller than the fermented soluble type.
Is it important to know the difference between soluble and insoluble fibers?
Not really if you are eating whole foods in moderation. The wonder of nature is that it provides you a balance if you eat a variety of foods containing fiber.
The problem arises when we eat too much insoluble fiber. Because it isn’t digested and bulks up our stools, we can become constipated if we get too much. This is especially risky if you don’t drink enough water during the day.
If you eat too much soluble fiber, you may feel bloated and gassy, because of the fermentation process.
Eating a variety of fiber-rich foods can help you get the right balance of soluble and insoluble types. Besides, eating the same thing every meal or every day can get boring. We need to also enjoy the foods we eat.
How Much Should You Be Eating?
So, if too much fiber can cause problems, how much should you get in your diet?
Current daily recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are as follows:
|Women||25 grams||21 grams|
|Men||38 grams||30 grams|
Too Much Can Cause Problems
Side effects of constipation, bloating, cramps and gas usually occur if you eat more than 70 grams of fiber per day. This is not uncommon for someone on a vegan or raw diet. If you experience any of these side effects, have a look at how much fiber you are eating. You may need to lower it.
Discuss this with your doctor or dietitian if you are having these issues. If you don’t pay attention to it, it could ultimately lead to poor health and even intestinal blockages. Often, too much of a good thing is not good.
Eating too much may lead to other nutrient problems. Fiber binds to some nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron. This means that you can’t absorb these bound minerals, which can lead to deficiencies and poor health.
What Are the Benefits of Dietary Fiber?
Fiber is very important in our diet. A balance of soluble and insoluble fibers in the right amounts will keep your gut, your microbiota and you healthy. Let’s look at the long list of good things that fiber does for you.
- Improves regularity of bowl movements
- Prevents constipation
- Lowers risk of diverticular disease
- Reduced risk for colon cancer
- Reduced cholesterol levels
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced risk for heart disease
- stabilizes blood sugar
- protects against diabetes type II
- Lowers fat absorption
- Helps us feel full for long after the meal
- Helps reduce risk for obesity and metabolic disease
- Feeds good gut bacteria (microbiota)
Whew! Is that enough reason to eat fiber? Well, there is one more big one! Eating the right amount and type of fiber can help you live longer. Studies show that people who eat enough dietary fiber, especially from whole grains, are at a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and all cancers. That just cinches it for me!
Should You Be Taking A Fiber Supplement?
If you are eating the recommended servings for whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits and grains, then the answer to this question is probably NO. Unless your doctor or dietitian tell you otherwise, eating based on current food guides, such as the Canada Food Guide, will give you enough daily fiber. Remember that too much isn’t a good thing either.
What Foods Contain Fiber?
The best sources are vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. It is important to note that juicing takes the fiber out of foods So fruit and vegetable juices are usually low in fiber, especially when they are the low pulp variety.
Here are some examples of wholesome foods and their approximate fiber content:
|1 pear, including skin||7 grams||1 medium sweet potato||5 grams|
|1 cup cooked oats||4 grams||2 slices whole wheat bread||4.5 grams|
|1/2 cup raspberries||4 grams||½ cup cooked spinach||3.5 grams|
|3 cups air-popped popcorn||3.6 grams||1 banana||3 grams|
|1 cup cooked barley||6 grams||1 apple, including skin||3.5 grams|
|½ avocado||5 grams||½ cup whole wheat pasta||3 grams|
|½ cup black beans||7.5 grams||24 almonds||3.5 grams|
|½ cup All-Bran cereal||12 grams||1 cup carrots||3.6 grams|
|1 cup winter squash||5.75 grams||1 orange||2.3 grams|
Of course, this list is not exhaustive. But it should give you ideas about what to make for supper tonight, doesn’t it?
How to Add More Fiber into Your Day
If you haven’t been eating a healthy amount of fiber in your diet, add it in slowly. Eat a variety of these foods to get that balance between soluble and insoluble fibers. There are many wholesome foods rich in fiber to choose from.
Remember that soluble fiber needs to be fermented by good gut bacteria. It will take time for you to develop a good healthy microbiota to be able to handle the increase.
Drink plenty of water to keep that soluble fiber moist and wet so that it can dissolve. The insoluble fiber will absorb some of that water too. Make sure you stay properly hydrated.
Don’t add these foods too quickly. Add small amounts over time to build up to the recommended levels. If you experience any side effects, reduce the amount of fiber you are eating, then add them in more slowly.
Be sure to spread the amount of fiber over the day and don’t eat is all in just one or two meals.
Keeping a diary of the foods you eat and how much fiber you are getting is also a good idea. Journaling food is one way to ensure you are getting enough of valuable macronutrients.
One Key Takeaway
The key takeaway from this, when you look at that list of foods containing fiber, is that if you just eat a healthy diet of a variety of wholesome foods, you really don’t need to worry about it. So, if you already do this, excellent! And if you don’t, then that is a good goal to strive towards.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Be sure to visit the Healthy Eating Archives at Pink Ribbon Runner. Subscribe to my emails too, so that you don’t miss out on the upcoming articles on eating healthy, being active and living a healthy life.