Humans require protein to support muscle growth and repair, healthy fats for the skin and to support hormone production, and dietary fiber for digestive health.
According to research conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, just three percent of American adults get enough fiber. 1 Americans eat an average of just 15 grams per day, which is not enough to enjoy the protective benefits that fiber offers.
The recommended daily amounts of fiber are 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men, according to the Institute of Medicine. There have been campaigns promoting the benefits of proteins and vitamins, but fiber has been left out in the cold when it comes to marketing and awareness.
Why Is Fiber Important?
Fiber is best known as the nutrient that helps ensure that people don't get constipated, but it actually does a lot more than just help individuals digest food properly. It has been found to help reduce the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and metabolic syndrome. It has also been shown to regulate blood pressure and is thought to help to protect against high cholesterol. 2
What Is Fiber Found In?
Fiber is found exclusively in plants. Meat and dairy products do not contain fiber at all. Processed foods tend to not contain a lot of fiber either. Many people make the mistake of assuming that breads, pastas, and cakes contain fiber because they are made from flour. However, the process of making white refined flour removes a significant amount of the fiber that the original grain would have had. 3
Another mistake that people make is thinking that because fruit is healthy, fruit juice must also be healthy. Juicing removes the pulp and fiber from the fruit and leaves behind something that is little more than fruit-flavored sugar water. If you want to enjoy the nutritional benefits of fruit, eat the whole fruit, rather than just drinking the juice.
Fiber and Digestion
When you start eating fiber after spending a lot of time on a low-fiber diet, your stomach might rebel slightly. However, fiber-rich foods, overall, are good for the digestive system. Fiber helps regulate the rate at which food moves through the intestines. It can also absorb water, which makes stools slightly bulkier and helps prevent diarrhea. It can also soften the stool and make it move more smoothly through the intestine, which can help prevent constipation. 4
Soluble vs. Insoluble Fiber
There are two kinds of fiber—soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber will dissolve, at least partially, in water. It turns into a gel-like substance that can actually help lower cholesterol levels. 5 Good sources of soluble fiber include rye, barley, beans, and some fruits such as apples and oranges.
Insoluble fiber is tougher and more stringy. It does not dissolve in water, and it remains generally intact as it passes through the digestive system. Insoluble fiber can help prevent or reduce the symptoms of constipation. A lot of people who are trying to lose weight will choose to eat more insoluble fiber because it makes foods seem more filling without really adding more calories to your diet. 6
It is a good idea to aim for a mix of both soluble and insoluble fiber in your day to day diet.
FODMAPS and Fiber
Some people suffer from a condition where they struggle to digest foods that are high in FODMAPs, fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols. People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in particular struggle to digest these foods and find that they suffer from diarrhea, flatulence, bloating, pain, and nausea if they consume them. 7 Unfortunately, a lot of foods that are high in fiber are also high in FODMAPS. It can be difficult for those who need to avoid FODMAP-containing foods to find a healthy balance and take in sufficient fiber.
Nevertheless, there are some low FODMAP fruits and vegetables as well as grains and legumes that are high in fiber. In addition, those who need to avoid FODMAPs may find that they can increase their fiber intake by eating nuts and seeds. 8
However, it’s important to remember that nuts and seeds can be calorie dense, so they should be eaten in moderation.
Fiber and Diabetes
There are two different kinds of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition where the body cannot produce insulin. People who suffer from type 1 diabetes will have to inject insulin for the rest of their lives to manage the condition.
Type 2 diabetes is a condition which tends to develop in adulthood as a result of many years of generally poor diet choices. There is a strong link between type 2 diabetes and obesity, and many people who are at risk for type 2 diabetes can avoid the condition by losing weight. In some cases, type 2 diabetes can even be reversed. 9
Insulin resistance is an early warning sign of type 2 diabetes. People who are insulin resistant find that even when their body is producing insulin to regulate blood sugar, the cells do not respond in the way that they should.
A diet that is low in fiber can create sudden spikes in blood sugar and can increase a person's risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Eating a diet that is high in fiber, in particular, high in cereal fibers, can help reduce the risk of diabetes and also regulate the rate at which carbohydrates break down and sugars enter the bloodstream. 10 , 11
Fiber and Intestinal Health
Eating a high fiber diet can help with a number of other health conditions. Diverticulitis is an age-related colon condition that is becoming increasingly common in the Western world largely as a function of diet choices. Eating a diet that is rich in insoluble fiber can help lower risk of diverticulitis. 12
Additionally, it’s especially important for women to eat a high fiber diet during adolescence because fiber consumption, in particular fibers from fruits and vegetables, have been found to have a protective effect against breast cancer. 13
Surprisingly, recent studies have not found a link between fiber consumption and reduced risk of colon cancer, although given that there are many other benefits to consuming the recommended daily amount of fiber, it makes sense to do so anyway. 14
Increasing Your Fiber Intake
A lot of people find that when they first start eating more fiber, they either experience bloating or diarrhea. This is because their bodies are not used to eating so much fiber, and if the food also contains FODMAPs, then they may be breaking down the fermentable sugars and experiencing gas too. As long as you can usually tolerate FODMAPs, this will be a short-term effect.
To ease the transition, gradually increase your fiber intake. Add an extra five grams per day to your diet for a week or two, then increase again, until you get to the recommended daily intake. This will reduce any gastric side effects.
If you experience a lot of bloating because your body is not used to these higher fiber levels, try essential oils to reduce the symptoms. Peppermint and ginger essential oils are great choices for soothing the stomach and reducing bloating and can be applied topically after dilution with a carrier oil.
Additionally, you should also increase your water intake alongside your fiber intake. Aim for six to eight glasses of water per day and get regular exercise too. This will help to improve your circulation and therefore boost your digestive health. 15
Children and Fiber
The effect of fiber intake on chronic disease is something that is well understood in adults, but there is less of an understanding of how fiber can support the health of children. From the age of six months old, it is important that children eat a varied diet, and it is clear that fiber is important for adolescents.
Children should be eating a diet that is rich in nutrients, and that includes fruits, vegetables, and protein sources. Fiber is useful for helping to ward off constipation and other gastric issues in children. 16
For the most part, both children and adults should be able to get enough fiber in their diets simply by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. There should not be a need to use fiber supplements to support a child's diet if they are eating green, leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeded bread.
If you have a child that must follow a restrictive diet, perhaps because they are gluten intolerant, have IBS, or have celiac disease, then it is a good idea to seek advice from your family doctor to ensure that the diet that they are on includes all of the nutrients that they need.
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re currently not consuming the amount of dietary fiber that your body requires for optimal function. Luckily, this is a rather simple lifestyle change to make and will ultimately result in a range of important health benefits in the long-term. Try some of the tips above for integrating more varied fiber into your diet and allow yourself to take another step towards achieving your optimal health and wellness.
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