High-fiber foods have an outstanding reputation in medical and nutritional circles. But, they’re a harder sell for those who view life from a culinary or “foodie” point of view. Images of coarse cereal, dry bread and powdered roughage that you’re somehow supposed to mix with water and drink like a delicious smoothie come to mind. I would argue that a more balanced view of fiber is called for and necessary.
Dietary fiber is best known for regulating digestion and elimination. For starters, fiber rich foods and supplements can improve constipation and manage diarrhea. A visual illustration of how this works is to think of fiber as a sort of sponge. When you eat or supplement meals with fiber, it mixes with liquid and expands in your digestive tract. In the case of constipation, this added bulk assists your body in pushing out waste. When dealing with diarrhea, fiber absorbs excess fluid, thereby resulting in a more solid stool. Beyond that, healthy digestion and elimination is essential to wellness in many ways. Some of the noted benefits of adequate dietary fiber include protection against colorectal cancer, hemorrhoids and a lower overall risk for many other causes of death.
Hungry for Lower Blood Sugar
Fiber is no one trick pony. In fact, a major attribute of this dietary component is healthier blood sugar management. Numerous studies attest to the fact that eating and supplementing with fiber improves blood sugar, insulin sensitivity and modulates hunger hormones.
Maintaining optimal fasting- and post-meal blood sugar is a proactive way to avoid diabetes and hastened aging. What’s more, adequate fiber assists with weight management by promoting satiety aka hunger satisfaction.
Your Aching Heart
Diet and lifestyle measures that minimize diabetes risk also tend to support a healthy cardiovascular system. Elevated inflammation is commonly found in those with poor cardiometabolic status. Diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, overweight and PCOS are examples of cardiometabolic conditions.
A great deal of research has consistently found that diets rich in fiber are inversely associated with chronic inflammation. Additionally, interventional trials reveal that including more fiber in the diets of at-risk individuals lowers inflammatory markers.
Manipulate Your Gut
There is a large community of organisms that resides in your gut. We all have a diverse population of bacteria known collectively as the human gut microbiome. As you might expect, these bacteria play a role in the digestive process. However, they do much more than that. A recent review entitled, “The Gut Microbiome and the Brain” explains that gut bacteria “produce hormones and neurotransmitters” that may affect cognitive function, immunity, mood, sleep and much, much more.
Consuming high fiber foods is one of the most powerful ways to promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. This, in turn, discourages overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria and related symptoms. Simply put, fermentable fiber feeds the good bacteria, which then crowd out unwanted microbes.
It’s Not That Roughage
I like to approach the topic of dietary fiber in a very manageable way. Clearly, there are established guidelines about how much fiber everyone “requires”. This ranges from about 19-38 grams/day.
Personally, I don’t keep track of my daily fiber intake. Instead, I have familiarized myself with foods that are good sources of fiber, and I eat those foods consistently. Some of my favorite, high-fiber friends include apples, avocados, berries, dark chocolate, freshly ground flax seeds, and green leafy vegetables.
If you decide you need more fiber in your life, I suggest getting it primarily from whole food sources. Fiber supplements are effective and can be very convenient. On occasion, I use them myself. Having said that, fiber rich foods often contain healthful antioxidants, nutrients and phytochemicals that are not always present in fiber supplements. This approach adheres to my general philosophy about supplementation: Supplements are intended to supplement a healthful diet and lifestyle - not replace it.
John Paul Fanton, based in Los Angeles, California, is a consultant, researcher and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of natural medicine. He designs unique nutritional plans, mind-body (meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and vitamin/supplement programs for individual clients who are interested in improving overall health, weight and wellness. You can find his weekly column on the Healthy Fellow.
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