In 2021, we’re all pretty much on board with the idea that eating fiber is essential for regular pooping habits. Some of us even understand that eating fiber helps nourish the good bacteria in our microbiome, which is essential for supporting good health.
But today, let’s dive deeper into the fiber story so you will have no doubt about its essential role in your diet.
If you’re on a quest to optimize your health, fiber is sure to become your new BFF.
What is fiber?
It’s not a vitamin or a mineral.
It’s not an essential nutrient necessary to build up cell walls or strengthen nerves.
Found almost exclusively in plant foods, it’s a group of carbohydrates that resist breakdown in the small intestine.
And it’s this resistance to breakdown that makes it so important to your gut and the trillions of microorganisms that call it home.
Fiber helps support a diverse microbiome. The greater the variety of microorganisms flourishing in your gut, the better for your over-all health.
Fiber’s benefits are not just confined to your gut.
Recent research indicates that adequate fiber intake has been associated with reduced risk of heart disease, coronary artery disease, and even some types of cancers, including cancer of the pancreas and stomach.
To understand how fiber could have this beneficial effect, it’s important to understand what fiber does in your gut.
And why you need to eat both soluble and insoluble fiber for optimal health.
One type of fiber is not nearly as effective without the other.
The interaction of soluble and insoluble fiber helps slow down sugar absorption.
Here comes a simplified scientific explanation to help you understand the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber and why you benefit from the synergistic effects of both.
Soluble fiber partially dissolves in water and may form a gel-like substance in the small intestine.
Insoluble fiber maintains it’s stringy, fibrous structure as it passes though the GI tract. All that stringiness forms a sort of latticework on the inside of the small intestine and duodenum. The gel-like substance fills the holes of the latticework.
Together they form a sort of net that limits the speed with which the small intestine absorbs the sugar molecules it extracts from foods.
This moderating effect prevents big insulin surges that occur when too much sugar floods the bloodstream and liver. And it’s these insulin surges that are associated with weight gain and Type 2 diabetes.
Good to know, right?
Soluble fiber can help bacteria convert it into anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids.
This is a very good thing for reducing inflammation.
Short-chain fatty acids lower inflammation in the GI tract, the lungs and the brain. They can contribute to a reduction of the type of brain inflammation that contributes to age-related cognitive decline. Think dementia and Alzheimer’s disease prevention.
These same short-chain fatty acids also have anti-cancer effects.
Those insoluble stringy fibers also bind to water molecules and stray food particles.
They scrub the walls of the colon helping to clear away dead cells and left over particles of partially digested foods.
They also bind to bile acids, carcinogens and other harmful substances.
This binding promotes the formation of bulkier, softer poops. Another plus!
Add more fiber to your doable food plan.
Add a variety in terms of color and types of foods that grow from something with roots in the ground to up your fiber intake.
Eat whole fruits and vegetables in stead of sipping or slurping them.
While juices, shakes and smoothies are all the rage, with diet gurus hawking them in every social media feed, I advise to avoid them. And ditch the extra prep work and clean up they entail too.
Processing, including juicing and blending, degrades the fiber, eliminating the healthy effects of fiber.
Pro tip: Let your body do the processing and you will reap all the benefits.
A word about legumes and whole grains.
If you want to include them in your plan, they are important sources of fiber.
Legumes include black-eyed peas, chickpeas, beans (adzuki, cannellini, Great Northern, kidney, lima, navy, pinto, and soy beans), peanuts, and lentils (green and split red are most popular). You can also eat green beans and snow peas in their pods.
These are fiber super-stars. A cup of legumes packs at least twice as much fiber as the same amount of of fruits or vegetables.
Whole grain foods are sources of fibers that research has consistently linked with a reduced risk of obesity and disease. But not all whole grains are created equal. It’s best to consume them mainly intact, such as brown rice, wheat berries or steel-cut oats rather than as a processed flour.
My body seems to do better on a lower carb food plan. I rarely eat anything made with added sugar or flour. Occasionally I include legumes and whole grains with my veggies and fruits, but not often.
I encourage you, though, to try whatever appeals to you and evaluate how your body responds. You are the best judge of when, how often and how much to include in your doable daily food plan.
And now, a word about bloating and gas.
If you’re wondering if adding more legumes to your diet can increase bloating and gas, it certainly can.
Gas is one of the byproducts of the kind of healthy soluble fiber fermentation that produces those all important short chain fatty acids.
All fibers, no matter their source, can cause bloating and gas. Gut bacteria vary in their ability to digest different types of fiber, so different sources of fiber may produce different amounts of bloating and gas.
Keep in mid that the ability of bacteria to digest any one type of fiber can vary from person to person.
This makes the selection of the best type of fiber for you a matter of trial and error. Curiosity and experimentation for the win!
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