Everybody poops – we all need to move the mail regularly. But for some people the only regular thing is about the mail is that it is never on time. The easiest answer to this frustrating (and health endangering) issue? Eat lots of fiber-rich foods.
“Roughage”- simply put – is the key to natural living, and to a long, healthy life. And, no matter what your age, fiber can give you a leg up in the attraction and health departments.
What’s so special about it? Fiber affects how we digest everything else.
What Is Fiber?
Fiber is the part of food you don’t digest; it goes right through you and helps take all the waste your body doesn’t want with it.
Fiber also essentially means the difference between a healthy and unhealthy carb. Now, you’ve probably heard plenty of bad things about carbs, and with good reason. It’s simple carbs – like table sugar, pancakes, breads, sweets, and juices – which have given carbs a bad name. Your body quickly breaks these carbs down into sugar. Eating a lot of them, especially at once, causes your blood sugar to spike and insulin to flood your system. This scenerio – over and over – is a surefire path to weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.
Complex carbs – those with fiber – are different. It takes much longer for your body to break them down. Your blood doesn’t get flooded with insulin, which means your blood sugar doesn’t surge. And the fiber in complex carbs passes through your body virtually untouched, promoting a healthier GI tract.
If you’re not pooping at least once per day, or you’re working way too hard making that daily deposit at the bank, you need to eat more fiber.
What are Fiber-Rich Foods?
If you’re eating anything that’s grown in the ground, you’re eating fiber. That means complex carbs like vegetables and fruits, legumes, seeds and nuts. It means brown rice, bran and psyllium.
Not refined starches, mind you. White rice is just brown rice with the fiber scrubbed off. And fruit juice is just flavored sugar water squeezed out of its fiber packaging.
Once a food is processed, the fiber is lost (there’s one important exception, but I’ll get to that shortly).
So, if you need more fiber-rich foods in your diet – and just about everyone does – try to eat plenty of natural plant foods, in their original form. Don’t worry too much about where you get it – you don’t need a special fiber cereal, for instance.
In fact, that sort of strategy could backfire – if you think you’ve covered your bases with a bowl at breakfast, you’re not going to get enough fiber. Instead, you need to eat fiber-filled foods throughout the day.
The one exception I would mention is psyllium. Psyllium is a water-soluble fiber, which makes it special. It comes from the seeds of plants, specifically those in the Plantago family.
Unlike most fibers, you can drink psyllium as a supplement. That’s why it’s a key ingredient in fiber powder products that you mix with water and drink.
And beyond that, psyllium can also soak up water – much more so than most fibers. It’s a bulk-forming laxative – meaning it removes water from your stool, and firms it up. So if you need assistance updating the captain’s log, psyllium is uniquely positioned to help.
Benefits of Fiber
Now you know where to get the stuff. Here’s why you should include it in your diet…
Fiber has three main benefits:
- It isn’t absorbed by your body. So you can eat plenty of it, without having to worry about weight gain, blood sugar levels, or any other nutrition issues. That’s why so many nutritionists are strict about servings of meat, for instance, while they will tell you to eat as much roughage as you like.
- It aids digestion. Specifically, insoluble fiber slows the rate of digestion, while speeding up transit times through your gut.
In other words, it moves everything through you quickly, giving your body enough time to get the healthiest nutrients, without allowing food to sit around and putrefy. Long transit times can lead to other problems as well – from constipation, to chemical changes that can promote cancer.
Long story short, you want your digestion time to be short. And insoluble fibers – those that don’t dissolve in water – help more than anything else.
Soluble fibers, meanwhile – like our friend psyllium – help stool form, and promote healthy cholesterol. That’s a strong combination.
Most natural foods contain both insoluble and soluble fibers, so don’t worry too much about focusing on one or the other.
- Fiber Feeds A Healthy Gut Microbiome. While it’s true that we don’t really digest fiber, the bacteria in our gut are a different story.
Our gut bacteria – our microbiome – is a fiber-loving community. And diets low in fiber lead to a much smaller community – one with only a few strains of good bacteria.
A fiber-rich diet, on the other hand, leads to healthy amounts of different bacteria, each doing a different job. A healthy microbiome is essential to our overall health. In fact, a fiber-fed microbiome has been linked to everything from weight loss, to a reduction in digestive inflammation, to better regulated blood sugar.
Prevent Diabetes By Eating Fiber-Rich Foods
That last part is key. In America, we have a startling problem with obesity and diabetes. And a surprising amount of that can be linked to fiber – or the lack of it.
Americans tend to eat lots and lots of simple carbs. And, as I mentioned earlier, simple carbs are quickly digested. Sugar floods our bloodstream and insulin is released in hordes to help escort it into our cells. Our blood sugar soon crashes, and we’re left without energy, craving more sugar.
We repeat this ugly cycle over and over until our body no longer reacts to insulin, i.e., it becomes insulin resistant. And, because so many of us are already on this awful roller coaster, we’re well on our way to developing diabetes.
Guess what? Fiber stops this cycle in its tracks.
If you are worried about diabetes, there’s no better way to prevent it than eating a high-fiber diet. Fiber is good for your heart too.
How Much Fiber Do I Need?
When you combine all the benefits of fiber, it’s a no-brainer to include as much as you can in your diet. Since it doesn’t get absorbed by the body, there’s no danger of throwing yourself out of whack by chowing down on it.
Eating too little, on the other hand, is another matter.
The average person should aim for a daily fiber intake of 25-35 grams a day. If you have diabetes, research has shown that 50 grams a day can promote better blood glucose control.
Unfortunately, most people eat 10-15 grams a day, or sometimes less. That’s just not enough.
While it’s helpful to check nutrition labels for fiber content, I’ve got a better approach… You know how you’re supposed to have 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day? Well, aim for twice that.
That means you could combine three servings of fruit, four of vegetables, and one each of whole grains, seeds and nuts. Or any other combination you like. I like flax and chia seeds because, not only are they great sources of fiber, but they help you also get more omega-3 healthy fats.
The important thing is just to load up your plate with fiber-rich foods, especially fruits and vegetables since they don’t contain the simple carbs that still reside in whole grains. You really can never have too many veggies.
Increasing your daily fiber intake is, absolutely, one of the best dietary changes you can make.
My one caveat here is, go organic as much as you can – you’re not doing yourself any favors by consuming pesticide residues with all that healthy fiber. Make shopping a lot easier by learning about which produce is the “cleanest” and which is the “dirtiest.”
- Sinatra ST. Optimum Health: A Natural Lifesaving Prescription for Your Body and Mind (Bantam Books, 1997).
- Mandy Oaklander, In Defense of Fiber: How Changing Your Diet Changes Your Gut Bacteria, Time, Jun 26 2015
- Ed Yong, Low-Fiber Diets Cause Waves of Extinctions In The Gut, The Atlantic, Jan 13 2016
- Shiu-Ming Kuo, The Interplay Between Fiber and the Intestinal Microbiome in the Inflammatory Response, Advances in Nutrition, Jan 2013 4: 16-28
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