Dietary Fiber – What is it and why should we care?
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not readily digestible by the body. Though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fiber is mostly kept in-tact and so it doesn’t increase the amount of sugar molecules in your blood. In fact, fiber helps to regulate the body’s use of sugars as it slows down digestion so that sugar molecules are released slowly into the blood stream, helping to keep hunger and insulin production in check.
Despite its popular association with trips to the restroom, fiber is no joke. The benefits of an efficient bowel movement aside, a high-fiber diet can also reduce the risk of many diseases by keeping your cholesterol low, your blood sugar stable and promoting weight loss.
What’s weird about fiber is it’s something our body needs but unlike other nutrients it is not fully digested or absorbed by the body. This is where the concept of “net carbs” comes from. Fiber comes in two varieties, soluble and insoluble fiber. Most plant-based foods contain a mixture of the two but are usually richer in one type than the other.
Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns to gel in the stomach, slowing down digestion. You can identify the types of food that contain soluble fiber by thinking of foods that would turn mushy when added to water, for example oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples & berries. Because soluble fiber helps to slow down digestion, it also reduces the rate at which sugar is released into the blood stream.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, remains unchanged all the way through the colon and does not absorb water. It’s typically found in the seeds and skins of fruits and vegetables (think of celery) as well as in whole wheat bread and rice. Insoluble fiber creates a bulkier and softer stool and so it helps prevent constipation.
Not getting enough fiber often leads to constipation, which can make going to the bathroom painful and uncomfortable. Eating too little fiber can make it tough to control blood sugar and appetite because fiber regulates the speed of digestion and contributes to making us feel full.
Like anything in life, there can be too much of a good thing. Overdoing fiber can move food through the intestines too quickly, which means fewer minerals are being absorbed from food. It can also result in gas, bloating, and cramping, especially when fiber intake is dramatically increased overnight.
The health benefits of fiber
1. Heart protection
Soluble fiber attaches to cholesterol inside your digestive system and takes them out of the body, thereby helping to reduce overall cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. It’s thought that oatmeal is one of the best sources of heart protection because of its fibrous content.
2. Diabetes protection
Because soluble fiber isn’t well absorbed and insoluble fiber isn’t digested at all, these types of carbohydrates do not contribute to blood sugar spikes. In fact, they assist with reducing blood sugar levels by slowing down digestion. Consistently spiking your blood sugar can put you at risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If you already have heart disease then soluble fiber can play an important role in keeping your condition under control.
3. Weight loss
Soluble fiber can also help you get to or maintain a healthy weight by helping you to feel full without adding many calories to your diet. Insoluble fiber also plays a key role in controlling weight by diminishing hunger pangs and cravings.
4. Digestive health
Soluble fiber soaks up water as it passes through your system which helps to soften your stool allowing it to move more easily through the colon. Because about two-thirds of the fiber you eat is insoluble fiber, fiber supplements tend to be mostly made up of soluble fiber.
How much fiber should you consume?
A good goal to aim for is between 25 to 40 grams of fiber per day. For full recommendations relative to your age and sex you can take a look at the National Dietary Guidelines. A good rule of thumb is about 20% of your carbohydrates in grams. How do you do that without taking supplements?
Some tips for increasing fiber intake:
- Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices;
- Replace white rice, bread, and pasta with brown rice and whole grain products;
- For breakfast, choose cereals that have a whole grain as their first ingredient;
- Snack on raw vegetables instead of chips, crackers;
- Substitute meat with beans or legumes, two to three times per week in chili and soups.
A list of high fiber foods:
- Collard greens
- Pumpkin seeds
- Apples with skin
- Baked sweet potato with skin
- Bran Flakes
- Whole Wheat Pasta
For a more comprehensive list download our FREE superfood shopping list of high fiber foods that are packed full of essential fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins & minerals – all the good stuff that makes our bodies feel vibrant and that help to optimize all of those super complex and essential daily functions in our bodies.
So when it comes to quantifying the quality of the food we’re eating, we do our best to hit our fiber goals daily. In so doing, it typically ensures that we’re consuming a balanced array of Whole Foods and helps us to keep our fun foods in check!
Are you getting enough fiber? How do you know? What are your favorite sources of high fiber foods? Comment below or in our group on Facebook!
For more about fiber, check out out our podcast episode 34 and our short video below of us discussing the topic.