Did you know that according to the American Society for Nutrition only 5% of men and 9% of women get the recommended daily amount of fiber in their diets?
And yet, fiber has been studied for being incredibly important for heart health, proper digestion, healthy microbiome, weight management and blood sugar regulation.
In fact, lack of fiber in the diet has been linked to a higher risk for heart disease and diabetes- two diseases that are listed among leading causes of death worldwide.
When it comes to nutrition, there are certain dietary components that often steal the spotlight- think protein, vitamins and antioxidants. However, while fiber might not have the glamor of trendy superfoods, it definitely deserves its time in the spotlight as it truly plays a pivotal role in our overall health and general well-being.
What is fiber?
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body doesn’t digest in the way other foods are digested, such as fats, proteins, and other carbohydrates — which your body breaks down and absorbs.
Fiber, which is primarily found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains has many more roles than just being a digestive aid and keeping us regular. Yet, despite how critical fiber is, the majority of us fall woefully short of meeting our daily fiber needs. The modern diet, characterized by processed foods and busy lifestyles, has led to an enormous “fiber gap” in our nutrition.
Fun fact| Did you know that 1 gram of matcha contains 385 mg of fiber?
There are two distinct types of fiber — soluble fiber & insoluble fiber
Soluble Fiber Sources:
Soluble fiber is able to dissolve in water and therefore forms a type of gel when eaten. Nutrition scientists believe that this can work to slow down digestion and therefore might help prevent blood sugar spikes.
Insoluble Fiber Sources:
Insoluble fibers are not digestible and mainly function to add bulk to our stools- key for preventing constipation!
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends people consume about 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed. For most adults this averages out to about 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women. However, most adults only consume about 15 grams of fiber daily.
Recently there has also been a push for higher fiber recommendations and studies showing that the more fiber we eat the better. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine now recommends people get at least 40 grams of fiber daily. No matter which recommendation you aim for, it’s clear we just aren’t eating enough fiber.
5 Reasons why fiber is so good for you, according to research
1) Digestive Health
Did you know fiber prevents constipation and promotes regularity?
Actually, studies have shown that insufficient amounts of fiber in the diet is one the main causes of constipation. Scientifically speaking, constipation is generally defined as having less than 3 bowel movements per week or stool that is too firm or small or difficult to pass. Constipation can cause pain, lead to hemorrhoids, and may even interfere with your ability to go about daily tasks.
While there isn’t a specific recommendation for how often you should be “going”, for most people that is daily (although anywhere from 3 times a week to 3 times a day may be considered normal). What is not normal, and may be a sign that you need to consult your doctor or increase your fiber, is relying on a laxative to have a bowel movement.
As fiber moves through your digestive tract, it binds to other waste products and helps move it through it. One of the main functions of insoluble fiber is to help bulk up stools and also soften them so they are easy to pass. Fiber can also help to solidify loose or watery stools as it absorbs water.
Studies show that fiber helps keep you “regular” and may therefore lower your risk of developing hemorrhoids and of developing diverticulitis (small or infection in the small pouches of your digestive system).
Multiple studies also show that eating a diet high in fiber may lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer.
2) Healthy Weight Management
Eating a diet high in fiber may be important for maintaining a healthy weight. Foods high in fiber, such as beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables, tend to be more filling than lower-fiber foods- so you may end up consuming less calories overall. Focusing on eating a diet full of fibrous foods can also work to “crowd-out” some less healthy foods such as cookies, cakes, breads, etc. High fiber foods also tend to be less calorie dense than their counterparts- meaning they have fewer calories for same weight of food.
One notable study links higher fiber diets (specifically soluble fiber) to a lower risk of belly fat. This study showed that an increase of only 10-grams of soluble fiber led to a 3.7% lower risk of gaining belly fat.
In addition to helping you feel fuller and crowding out less healthy foods, fiber may help control some hormones involved in feeling hungry- specifically ghrelin. These studies suggest that eating more fiber may help you feel fuller for longer and can also reduce the feeling of hunger.
Fiber has also been shown to slow down digestion, reducing how quickly food moves through your gut. This may help reduce appetite overall as your body is working hard to digest those higher fiber foods.
3) Blood Sugar Control
Fiber isn’t digested the way other carbohydrates are digested so it won’t raise your blood sugar levels. As we’ve discussed, fiber also works to slow everything down. Because of this, it can help control blood sugar levels after a meal, which is particularly important for people with diabetes.
One study suggests that people eating a high fiber diet have a lowered chance of developing type 2 diabetes and that those with type 2 diabetes may have a reduction in glucose levels from eating a higher fiber diet.
4) Balanced Microbiome Health
Living inside your gut are trillions of microorganisms, consisting of thousands of different species. These organisms, made up of helpful and potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, etc., make up your microbiome and if you have a “healthy” gut, all these organisms live peacefully together.
The microbiome has been increasingly paid attention to because it plays such a large role in all facets of health. Certain diets, medications, lifestyle, illnesses can disrupt the balance of your microbiome, which may lead to problems further down the line.
One of the best ways to ensure you have a healthy gut microbiome? You guessed it… fiber!
Prebiotics, a type of fiber, feed your beneficial gut bacteria and may be able to improve the health of your microbiome. Soluble fibers are broken down and fermented by microbiota in the intestines and in the process release short chain fatty acids (SCFA).
SCFA have been shown in studies to lower the pH of the colon, limiting some harmful types of bacteria from being able to grow. Nutritional scientists also believe that short chain fatty acids may help to improve immunity, gut barrier and reduce inflammation, among other benefits.
Prebiotics, and other types of soluble fiber, feed your beneficial gut bacteria and may be able to improve the health of your microbiome.
5) Better Heart Health
Having enough fiber in the diet, nutritional scientists believe, may be important for lowering cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber binds to bile acids in the gut and then excretes them. Bile acids work as emulsifiers and help with fat absorption. This is important because, it’s thought, that with reduced bile acids, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood to make more bile acids.
Studies show that this bile/cholesterol relationship may help to lower overall cholesterol levels. One meta-analysis suggests that eating a moderate amount of dietary fiber can help to lower LDL (the harmful type of cholesterol) and total cholesterol levels.
Multiple studies also show that eating an adequate amount of fiber is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
High fiber diets are also correlated, in multiple studies, with a lower risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, belly fat, and abnormal triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Lowering these health risks, it’s believed by the medical community, can decrease the risk for developing heart disease.
Why is there such a fiber gap?
An astounding less than 5% of Americans are eating enough fiber. We know that fiber is incredibly important for our health, so why are so many of us not getting enough?
One of the primary reasons for this huge gap is the rise in processed and convenient foods that are often completely devoid of this essential nutrient. For example, a piece of conventional white bread contains less than 1 gram of fiber. Comparatively, a piece of dense, whole grain bread, contains anywhere from 3-6 grams of fiber.
The Standard American Diet is filled with refined grains, sugary snacks, and low-fiber options, leaving little room for whole grains, fruits and vegetables and other fiber-rich sources. On average, Americans eat 1.5 cups of vegetables daily. The recommendations, based on the national nutrition guidelines is 2-3 cups per day.
Further, relying on fruits and vegetables alone to meet your daily fiber needs is difficult. For example, a ½ cup of broccoli only contains 1.1 grams of fiber. 1 cup of shredded lettuce only contains .5 grams of fiber. However, 1 cup of lentils contains 16 grams of fiber!
8 Simple ways to get more fiber in your diet
The bottom line | Try to eat more fiber!
Incorporating more fiber into your diet might be a significant step towards enhancing your overall health and well-being. Studies show that fiber is important for digestive health, weight management, heart health, and for regulating blood sugar levels. Embracing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts and seeds you can embark on a journey to a healthier, more fiber-rich lifestyle. Remember, small changes lead to big results.
As you work to increase fiber in your diet, it is key to do this gradually in order to allow your digestive system to adapt. Be sure to also drink plenty of water as you increase fiber to help prevent any digestive discomfort (like constipation).
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