Fiber is found in the majority of whole foods we eat from vegetables, fruits, to legumes and grains. But why is fiber important for gut health, digestion, and our overall health? Read more about this important part of your diet.
What Is Fiber?
Fiber, or called dietary fiber, is a plant-based carbohydrate that can’t be broken down into sugar molecules. Notice how it’s only found in plant-based sources? Animal products such as dairy, fish, chicken, fats don’t contain fiber.
Fiber is found in whole plant-based foods and acts like a broom that’s gently brushing out your intestines. Fiber is a crucial part of your diet promoting healthy digestion and other health benefits like heart health and reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.
Why Do We Need To Eat Fiber?
There are many health benefits to eating enough fiber, particularly with our digestive system. Fiber acts to slow the rate of digestion, which can slow the rate of sugar being absorbed in the bloodstream, creating a vehicle for stabilizing blood sugars.
Eating whole foods rich in fiber, like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains which are also good sources of carbohydrates, will keep your blood sugars from rising too fast. Read more here about why it’s important for our health to maintain blood sugar balance without spikes and falls with our glucose levels.
Another digestion benefit to eating enough fiber in your diet is the movement of your intestines. This isn’t just important for maintaining regular bowel movements and preventing constipation, it also plays a role in your body signaling that you’re full.
Fiber, especially insoluble fiber, acts like a little broom which sweeps your intestines and colon of bacteria, build up in your intestines, and can reduce your risk for colon cancer. If you’re curious about how to know what “normal” bowel movements are, read this article.
In addition to providing digestion health benefits, eating enough fiber is good for your entire body! We know the majority of our immune system lies within our gut so it’s so important we take care of our gut health with eating enough probiotic-rich foods or prebiotic foods that promote healthy bacteria, regular bowel movements, regulate blood sugars, and better nutrient absorption.
Fiber plays a role in heart health — in a nutshell when you digest food it requires bile acids which are mostly made up of cholesterol.
Your liver pulls cholesterol from the bloodstream to create bile acids which can reduce the amount of LDL. Remember, LDL is the cholesterol more closely associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease so it’s important to pay attention to both your LDL and HDL.
Fiber also plays a role in cancer prevention or reducing the risk for certain types of cancer.
Types Of Fiber
In general, there are a few types of fiber called soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water. As it moves through your digestive system it’s fermented by bacteria and it’s typically hydrophilic meaning it loves water. This type of fiber absorbs water and becomes gel-like. Remember making chia seed pudding? Chia seeds are a great source of soluble fiber!
Soluble fiber, in particular, can reduce cholesterol, regulate blood sugars, and can improve overall digestive and immune health.
Examples of soluble fiber include beans, most vegetables, avocado, sweet potato, dried figs, flax seed, chia seeds, pears, apricots, psyllium husk, and more.
Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water so as it goes through your digestive system it doesn’t change. Meaning, it doesn’t absorb water like soluble fiber and become gel-like, instead, it stays the same and like soluble fiber, it can also be fermented by bacteria in the colon.
Insoluble fiber promotes regular bowel movements since it contributes to the bulk of the stool, speeds up the elimination of waste through the colon, and maintains pH of the intestines.
Many whole foods that contain insoluble fiber also contain soluble fiber. Examples of insoluble fiber are bran cereals, beans, lentils, most whole grains, vegetables like okra, corn, and more.
A note on fiber supplements. You might be thinking, well I saw a commercial about adding powdered fiber to my water so I can make sure I eat enough fiber and reap the benefits in an easy way. First things first, if you can consume fiber from whole food sources, this is the best possible option.
We are still learning how whole foods work synergistically from the different nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber types within one whole food. Eating whole foods as your main source of fiber instead of supplements also promotes a healthy relationship with food, encourages cooking healthy, and challenges you to practice what you’re learning right now!
Fiber supplements really should be a last resort after you’ve exhausted consuming whole food rich in fiber and/or if you have a health condition per your doctor that requires you to consume them frequently. If you do reach for a fiber supplement, be sure to check in with your dietitian to make sure which option is the best for you. Always look for organic varieties, supplement companies that are USP certified, and follow the directions of your dietitian or doctor in taking them.
How much do you need to eat daily?
Everyone is different in terms of their unique needs for fiber — in general 30-38g of fiber per day is the goal for obtaining the most health benefits noted above. Some people thrive on higher intakes while some due to certain health conditions require a little less.