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How Fiber in Your Diet Improves Your Health
Most people don’t get enough fiber in their diets – foods that are high in fiber aren’t exactly comfort foods and the topic of fiber isn’t really all that interesting – I totally get that.
However, the simple truth is that humans need fiber. Our bodies require it. Our natural diet for hundreds of thousands of years was full of it.
Fiber not only promotes good health, but it also helps prevent serious diseases such as colon cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. This week’s blog is all about fiber, the benefits that it provides and simple ways to increase the amount of fiber in your diet.
There are two forms of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Even though they move through our digestive system undigested, both are very important.
Soluble fiber is found in the pulp of fruits and vegetables – the inside part of foods like apples, oranges, potatoes and yams. It’s also found in legumes, such as peas and soybeans and it’s in vegetables like broccoli and carrots.
When soluble fiber reaches our large intestines, the normal healthy bacteria that live there ferment the fiber and produce something called short-chain fatty acids.
Short-chain fatty acids do many important things for our bodies. They help stabilize blood sugar levels, suppress cholesterol synthesis, stimulate our immune systems, and improve the health and integrity of the colon. Short-chain fatty acids are absolutely necessary for optimal health.
Insoluble fiber also comes from a variety of fruits and vegetables. It is found in the skin of foods like apples, potatoes, and tomatoes. It’s also in many whole grain foods, nuts, seeds, and vegetables such as green beans, cauliflower, and celery. The processed foods you eat are typically stripped of their natural fiber.
Insoluble fiber cannot be digested or absorbed by our bodies. It cannot dissolve in water, but it does act like a sponge and absorb water – and this is beneficial for several reasons.
Processed foods, especially processed meats and foods high in animal fat contain various cancer causing compounds. As this material moves slowly through our intestines it causes damage that builds up over time and increases our risk for colon cancer.
Insoluble fiber absorbs water which then increases the water content and the bulk of the material in our intestines and lowers the concentration of cancer causing compounds. At lower concentrations, it is less likely that these compounds will damage the intestinal walls. Furthermore, the increased bulk helps the material move quickly through our digestive tract, which decreases the time that our intestines are exposed to the harmful compounds. Finally, fecal matter that has high water content is much softer and easier to eliminate – which reduces the risk of hemorrhoids and diverticular diseases.
The recommended fiber intake is 30-45 grams per day. Unfortunately, the average American only gets 12-15 grams each day. The best way to increase the amount of fiber in your diet is to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables that you eat. On a caloric basis, fruits and vegetables are the best source of fiber (low calories, high fiber). Whole grains tend to give you more calories, fewer vitamins and minerals, and more toxins for the same amount of fiber. Fruits and vegetables also provide vitamins, antioxidants, and the minerals necessary to maintain a healthy alkaline environment in your tissues.
Lunchtime provides a great opportunity to increase your fiber intake. Switch out your crackers, chips, or pretzels for some fresh broccoli, carrots, nuts or chickpeas.
If your tastes or your lifestyle make this difficult, you can increase your fiber intake with a supplement. Psyllium husk is an excellent fiber supplement. It is composed of 66% soluble fiber and 34% insoluble fiber. One tablespoon contains 7 grams of fiber. It’s available unflavored at most health food stores and it mixes well with foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese, oatmeal, cereal, or pasta sauce.
Since fiber absorbs water, with increased fiber intake you must also increase your water intake. Furthermore, always check with your doctor before taking a fiber supplement – especially if you are currently experiencing constipation, abdominal pain, or diarrhea.