Fiber is often an under-appreciated piece of the nutrition world. Some look at fiber as simply “roughage” or the “stuff we don’t digest.” However, fiber works to support our health in some pretty powerful ways.
Before we talk about what fiber does for our health, it’s prudent to talk about where we find fiber. We obtain fiber from whole vegetables, whole fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. Notice a theme there? Yup, WHOLE foods are the only way we get fiber. Sometimes processed foods have added fiber – this should be a red flag. If a food contained enough whole, plant-based ingredients, it wouldn’t require the manufacturer to add fiber. Think about that for a second. The simple addition of fiber to that otherwise junk food doesn’t make up for its lack of overall nutrient content. Read the ingredients list if you’re curious. A popular fiber-additive you’ll see on those overly-processed popular fiber bars or “white whole grain bread,” for example, is inulin.
Sometimes people take fiber chewables or add a spoonful of fiber to their drink so they can ensure they are consuming enough fiber. Why is this a problem you might ask? If you are not getting enough fiber (or suspect that you aren’t), you are also not getting adequate vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants due to the absence of whole plant foods. Period. I’m sure that fiber chewy has done wonders for your poop quality, but you are still short on all the other nutrients we are supposed to be getting from our food.
To put it simply, two main types of fiber exist in our plant foods: soluble and insoluble. Think of soluble (aka “viscous” aka “fermentable”) fiber as the stuff that helps to solidify your diarrhea but also helps to soften your hard, constipated turds. It works on both sides of the fence, which is awesome. Think of insoluble fiber as a chimney sweep for your guts. Insoluble fiber is not digested by us, but it helps to stimulate movement of your turd through your guts and scrubs the walls all the way to the toilet.
The thing is, all plant foods contain a combination of insoluble and soluble fiber. However, some have more of one than the other; for example, celery and corn have more insoluble fiber while beans and carrots have more soluble fiber. The moral of the story is, rather than worrying about which foods are higher in which type of fiber, you benefit from simply striving to obtain a variety and abundance of whole plant foods in your diet. Keep it simple!
Here is an oversimplified explanation of the reason we need fiber so badly:
- Mental Health: Adequate fiber consumption enhances the health of our intestinal tract. A HUGE connection exists between the health of our gut and the health of our brain. At the very least, one reason why gut health supports mental health is that a large amount of serotonin (a feel-good hormone) is produced in the gut.
- Poop: Simply put, you will have better and more regularly scheduled poops if you are consuming adequate fiber. If you have loose or watery stools, fiber will help to form better turds. If you have difficulties with constipation, fiber (and water!) will likely help provide some relief if consumed daily. You should be releasing a lovely, formed poop at least once per day.
- Immunity: Although it doesn’t seem to get as much press, your gut is the foundation of supporting a healthy immune system. Read more about GALT here. A health gut = better resistance against harmful bacteria and viruses.
- Overall Health: The health of your gut is the absolute fundamental aspect of your overall health. Odds are, if you’re battling ANY health condition (to include both mental health and physical healthy) your gut is probably not the healthiest it could be. We have good and bad bacteria in our gut. The way we eat determines how much of each we have at any given time. Research is continuing to support that those who are struggling with weight or diabetes (or pretty much any condition) often have imbalanced gut bacteria. While probiotics are a hot commodity when it comes to this topic, fiber is a PREbiotic. In other words, fiber helps to feed the good bacteria in our gut to ensure it thrives and repopulates. Probiotics are much more powerful when consumed along with prebiotics (fiber-rich foods).
- Cancer: Fiber is the main source of energy for the cells that line your colon. By the time certain types of fiber reach way down in our gut, they are fermented and eventually become short-chain fatty acids, our colon’s favorite food. Without adequate fiber, our colon cells do not thrive, and can become damaged and sick. Inadequate fiber intake is a huge risk factor for colon cancer. Despite the role that the ketogenic diet can have on some forms of active cancer, the fact that it tends to be severely deficient in fiber makes it significantly ineffective in preventing colon cancer.
- Diabetes: Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods that are low in fiber increases blood sugar rapidly, which subsequently increases the body’s insulin response. Many individuals are struggling with insulin resistance or full-blown diabetes. Adequate fiber can help to improve blood sugar management in both those with diabetes and those trying to prevent diabetes by reducing the body’s insulin response. All carbs are NOT created equally. Lack of fiber (and most other nutrients) is one of the biggest reasons that we benefit from avoiding white (enriched) flour grain products as best we can. Just about every single grain product like bread, crackers, pasta, buns, etc. has a 100% whole grain version that can be used.
- Weight: Just about everybody I talk to who complains of sugar cravings or being “hungry all the time” isn’t consuming adequate fiber-rich foods. See for yourself! I can tell you both from the science evidence and my anecdotal experience that sugar cravings and overall daily food intake is decreased when adequate fiber is consumed. Plus, if you’re eating vegetable-rich meals, you are likely getting to eat a larger volume of food but still not overdoing your overall energy needs. Nifty, isn’t it.
From a basic standpoint, the best idea would be to aim for 25-35 grams of fiber per day from food, not supplements. If you’re focusing on most every meal consisting of half a plate of non-starchy vegetables, ¼ plate starchy vegetables OR 100% whole grains, and ¼ plate protein-rich food, it would be impossible for you to not get enough fiber. Again, keep it simple.
A good quality 100% whole grain bread will have 3-4 grams of fiber per slice. (It’s also going to have more calories, but consider the nutrient density superior to the number of calories. Read more on the important aspects of nutrition math here.) Anyway, if your bread contains 5 grams of fiber per slice, a regular ol’ sandwich would then contain 10 grams of fiber! It could have even more fiber if you use hummus or avocado as a spread instead of mayo! Easy peasy. If you are reaching for fiber supplements to reach the recommended daily fiber intake, I highly suggest you reevaluate your eating style.
Cheers to healthy guts, fabulous health, and satisfying poops!
xoxo – Casey
Ps – You HAVE TO drink enough water to support an increase in fiber or you will fart your brains out. Water + fiber = BFF.