“Get your roughage!” Have you ever heard that and wondered what exactly it means? That’s your mom reminding you to get enough fiber. But what is fiber and why does it matter? Let’s explore those very questions!
What Is Fiber?
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate found naturally in plant-based foods. What makes it so special is that it is not digestible in humans. That may sound like a bad thing, but we’ll explore why it’s so good (and crucial!) in a moment. For now, know that unlike other carbs, fiber passes through the intestinal tract fairly intact.
How Does Fiber Work?
First, let’s clarify fiber categories. You may have heard of soluble fiber and insoluble fiber, but have you ever really considered the difference between the two? It’s fairly simple so let me try to help explain: Soluble fiber dissolves in water, whereas insoluble fiber does not. In the body, soluble fiber dissolves and becomes a gel-like substance in the colon. Insoluble fiber mostly retains its shape while moving through the gastrointestinal tract.
Both categories of fiber have health benefits. Soluble fiber is known to help decrease blood sugar levels and lower blood cholesterol. Insoluble fiber is best known for speeding up the passing of food through the digestive system.
What Are The Benefits Of Fiber?
They are plentiful! I’ll break just a couple down below.
Digestion And Regularity
This is easily the best-known benefit. To my earlier point, fiber speeds up the passing of food through the digestive system. This helps maintain regularity and prevent constipation, and makes stool pass easier. Sorry if this grosses you out, but the fact is, you don’t want your #2’s to be too hard or too watery. Fiber is the Goldilocks Baby Bear of poop and makes it “just right”. It certainly makes things more comfy, but it’s also important for colorectal health. Bonus: A high-fiber diet may help reduce the risk of hemorrhoids.
Bigger picture: As your digestion improves, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood, that in turn reduces the amount of LDL or bad cholesterol. In simpler terms, fiber also helps lower cholesterol.
As if those two very important benefits weren’t enough, here are some of the other fiber perks:
- Weight Management – In addition to the digestive benefits mentioned above that can help with weight management, fiber is also a natural appetite suppressant and can help balance gut microbes.
- Blood Sugar Regulation – A meta-analysis of studies regarding the relationship between fiber and blood glucose (blood sugar) levels published in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found that increased fiber intake can reduce blood glucose levels.
- Longevity – 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.”
- Food Allergies & Asthma – Wait.. what? Yep! New research suggests that fiber could play a role in preventing food allergies and asthma.
- It can also assist in preventing some ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes, obesity, and some cancers (including bowel cancer).
I’m Sold! How Much Do I Need?
The Institute of Medicine has set a Recommended Daily Amount for fiber intake. Men ages 50 and younger should consume 38 grams of fiber per day, and men 51 and older should consume 30 grams. Women ages 50 and younger should consume 25 grams per day, while older women should have 21 grams. This ends up being about the same amount of fiber that is found in five servings of fruits or vegetables and only one or two servings of whole grains or beans.
Unfortunately, most Americans do not consume enough fiber, according to the Institute. The average American consumes 14 grams, and many eat even less. Only 5 percent of people in the US meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily target.
How Do I Make This Happen?
It’s quite simple. Eat your fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes. Here is a list of some of the Giosi family favorites:
- Avocado (6.7%)
- Apples (2.4%)
- Bananas (2.6%)
- Blueberries (2.4%)
- Blackberries (5.3%)
- Carrots (2.8%)
- Broccoli (2.6%)
- Kale (3.6%)
- Spinach (2.2%)
- Tomatoes (1.2%)
- Lentils (7.9%)
- Chickpeas (7.6%)
- Black beans (8.7%)
- Quinoa (2.8%)
- Oats (10.6%)
- Popcorn (14.5%)
- Almonds (12.5%)
- Chia Seeds (34.4%)
- Pistachios (10%)
- Sunflower Seeds (8.6%)
- Sweet Potatoes (2.5%)
- Dark Chocolate (10.9%)
Honestly, between the 4 of us, I’d say the Giosis eat everything on this list on a daily basis.
I Hate Vegetables. Can I Just Take A Supplement Or Eat A Fiber Bar?
It’s highly recommended that you get a diversity of fiber from whole foods. Relying only on supplements or fiber-enriched processed foods, especially the sugary bars, is not a great idea. One of the reasons is that you are robbing yourself of all of the other amazing vitamins and minerals you get from the fiber-rich foods. Another, even more practical reason, is that at about 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon, it would take a lot of supplementation to meet your daily needs. Just like any supplement, you may also find yourself dealing with some unpleasant side effects. So, as usual, instead of trying to cheat the system, just grab the apple.
Here’s my warning for you: Don’t go from having a diet detrimentally deficient in fiber to a diet that is meeting the recommendations overnight. That is a recipe for bloating, abdominal pain, and flatulence. Just like anything else, give your body time to adjust. Slowly ease that fiber into your diet. Maybe start by just making sure you have a fruit or vegetable with every meal. From there you can start adding in more high-fiber snacks like fruits, seeds, and air popped popcorn (Arlen’s favorite!). Also, it’s very important to make sure you’re drinking lots of water on a high fiber diet!
During a time of meat shortages, this may be an especially good time to add in more plant based meals. Here are a few videos from our YouTube Channel that walk you through high-fiber recipes. Honestly, every recipe in the “Giosi Kitchen” and “Pandemic Pantry” sections of our YouTube page are good fiber recipes.
Reminder that I am not a physician. If you have questions about fiber intake, please consult your doctor.
Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary reference intakes: proposed definition of fiber. A report of the panel on the definition of dietary fiber and the standing committee on the scientific evaluation of dietary reference intakes. Institute of Medicine. 2001. National Academy Press: Washington, DC.