Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock
OK, we get it: Fiber is good. So why are so many of us still not getting anywhere near enough? Part of the problem is just talking (or reading) about the results of high-fiber diets can veer into ‘yuk’ territory pretty quickly. Below you’ll get find out exactly why it’s time to overcome your squeamishness and start eating more fiber-dense foods for your gut, your heart, and your health.
What is dietary fiber?
When we digest food, the body strips away the nutrients it needs, and what’s left over is mostly dietary fiber.
There are two kinds of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber (as the name suggests), dissolves into the water in our digestive system to form a gel-like substance. It slows down the passage of food through our gut so the body can absorb nutrients effectively. Foods like oats and oat bran, cucumbers, and blueberries contain plenty of soluble fiber.
Insoluble fiber bulks up food as it travels through our bodies, encouraging it to pass more quickly. That’s important for people who have slow digestion or struggle with constipation. Insoluble fiber is found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, whole grains, green beans and potatoes, though most foods have a combination of both types of fiber.
So when you hear that noise about eating a healthy balanced diet, dietary experts are partly talking about getting the right nutrients, but they’re also talking about fiber and making sure your digestive system stays in tip-top condition. Fiber can do some pretty amazing things for your health, such as:
Fiber reduces cholesterol
The strongest health claim for fiber is its ability to reduce heart disease risk. Soluble fiber can lower levels of LDL—or bad—cholesterol. The reason for LDL cholesterol’s bad reputation is that it can line the walls of arteries, narrowing them which forces your heart to work harder to pump blood. That increased strain can lead to heart disease and strokes. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol, ushering it out of the body before it can damage arteries.
Fiber slows sugar absorption
When you eat a lot of sweet stuff, the body has to produce a lot of the hormone insulin to help process the sugar. Lots of sudden sugar spikes can wear out your insulin-producing machinery, putting you at risk of diabetes. When you get plenty of fiber, that sugar enters the bloodstream more slowly, decreasing the demands for insulin. Get more advice on eating to keep blood sugar levels steady.
Fiber helps prevent gallstones and kidney stones
Insulin spikes make the body prone to developing gallstones or kidney stones. Aside from being excruciatingly painful, these stones can cause serious infections, and even lead to further complications such as kidney disease if left untreate
Fiber improves your digestive health
You already know that a high-fiber diet helps your digestive tract function more quickly and efficiently. This means your colon stays healthy, which helps prevent conditions such as diverticulitis (when polyps in the colon become inflamed), and irritable bowel syndrome. It may even help protect against colon cancer.
Fiber helps manage your weight
Fiber is an important ally if you’re trying to lose weight. High-fiber foods take more time to chew, and are bulky so they fill you up quickly. That means you feel fuller on fewer calories (remember how you can’t digest fiber?).
How much fiber should I eat each day?
The recommended daily intake of fiber is 21-25g for women, and 30-38g for men, depending on your age, but most people don’t eat enough daily fiber. You body will tell you if you’re not getting enough fiber.
Will changing my diet really make a difference?
You might think that changing to a high-fiber diet would take a long time to make an impact. But scientific study published by Harvard Medical School saw volunteers in the United States adopt a traditional African diet of vegetables, fruits, beans and plants. At the same time, volunteers in Africa tried a ‘western’ diet with high levels of fat and meat. Scientists were amazed to discover that the levels of colonic inflammation in the Americans dropped measurably in just two weeks. Meanwhile, the Africans suffered increased inflammation and other negative changes in their digestive tract, making them vulnerable to developing into colon cancer.
How can I get more fiber in my diet?
Getting more fiber into your diet is simple. Begin by lowering your intake of fat, processed foods and meat, and swap them for foods high in fiber. Eat plenty of high-fiber foods such as fruit and vegetables, as well as whole grains, beans and pulses, nuts, seeds and legumes. You’ll be doing your digestive system a lot of good.