If you’re like most that live in the U.S., you are probably not getting enough fiber in your diet. The average American only consumes about 15 grams of fiber per day, but the recommended amount is roughly 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. So how can you increase your fiber intake? And more importantly, do we REALLY need fiber to stay healthy? Let’s find out.
What is Fiber?
Fiber is a form of carbohydrate found in plant foods that is resistant to digestion. Meaning it goes through most of the digestive tract unchanged because our body does not technically absorb it. So what the holy heck, why care about something that we aren’t even breaking down?
What Does Fiber Do For Your Body?
Basically, because we don’t digest fiber like we do with fat or protein, for example; fiber, particularly, insoluble (does not dissolve in water) fiber, adds bulk to our stools. This bulking effect improves digestive motility, leading to more consistent bowel movements and prevents constipation. Eliminating daily is absolutely critical for sustained health and quality of life. When we are not regular, we hold onto various toxins aka, waste products that our bodies are trying so hard to get rid of. Holding onto these toxins is incredibly unhealthy, not to mention, uncomfortable and can lead to various physical and mental disorders such as: depression, dementia, anxiety, urinary tract infections, acid reflux, and even cancer. Yikes, sign me up for eliminating regularly please!
Now before I get into the other type of fiber known as, soluble fiber (dissolves in water), let’s quietly pull out our nerd glasses (you know you have a pair) and do a brief gut digestion review. Uhh hum, when we consume food, it goes from our mouth straight down to our stomach to be broken down. Once it leaves the stomach, it enters into the small intestine. When this happens our gallbladder squirts out bile. This bile then breaks down fat so that our bodies are able to utilize the fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins from the food we just ate.
A second very important job the bile does, is that it absorbs toxins from the body such as heavy metals, metabolic waste, excess hormones and cholesterol. Once bile has gathered up all of these toxins, soluble fiber then comes over and is like, “hey bile, that looks heavy, let me take that off your hands.” Soluble fiber then scoops up all of these toxins along with some of the bile and they all hold hands, sing kumbaya and exit out of the body.
This all sounds fine and dandy, however, remember the part where I said most Americans today are only consuming roughly HALF of the recommended intake for fiber? If this were a pass or fail exam, well uhh I don’t think I need to specify what kind of report card we’re bringing home to mom and dad. Now that I have your attention and hopefully didn’t lose you during Alma’s physiology recap 101, let’s take a look at what happens when our body is not getting enough dietary fiber.
When we do not consume enough fiber, our bile acids and toxins do not get bound up and are at risk for becoming recirculated into our body, yuck! This not only leads to thickening of our bile fluid (hello gallstones) but also increases our toxic load in the body. An increased toxic load impairs almost every bodily function from our skin (acne, psoriasis, eczema), to digestion (IBS, crohn’s disease, bloating, food intolerances) to hormonal imbalances (thyroid disruption, elevated cortisol, estrogen dysregulation). Not to mention that our liver uses cholesterol to synthesize bile. This means if bile continues to recirculate and not be excreted by our colon, our liver does have a reason to make more bile, thereby, increasing our serum cholesterol.
Other Benefits of Fiber
Now that you understand the impact fiber has on regularity, and detoxifying the body, let’s take a look at the other benefits of this wonderful, wonderful complex plant food constituent (fancy fiber definition flex).
- Improves blood glucose regulation, energy and mood. Fiber helps slow down digestion preventing blood glucose spikes. This maintains healthy blood sugar levels throughout the day. Improved blood glucose regulation supports a calmer mood and improves energy maintenance.
- Balances hormones: blood glucose dysregulation negatively impacts our hormones and adds stress to our body. Adding fiber to our diet has a regularity effect on BGL’s, which in turn helps regulate our hormones leading to hormonal balance.
- Promotes a healthy body weight: because our body is breaking down food at a slower rate, we feel fuller and more satisfied for longer, lowering our appetite and cravings. And as I mentioned earlier, because fiber is helping the body to detoxify, it is preventing these harmful toxins from being stored in our tissues – thus preventing weight gain. Lastly, because blood glucose dysregulation is tied to weight gain, we are improving our body composition.
As you can see all of our body’s systems are interconnected, if one thing is out of whack it creates a domino effect, and disrupts other parts of the body.
How to Increase Fiber
Now that we understand the importance of fiber, let’s talk where we can find it:
1. Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are a great source of fiber and provide both soluble and insoluble forms. Aim for at least five servings per day. Some high-fiber options include apples, bananas, berries, pears, turnips, avocados, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts.
2. Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit
Beans and other legumes such as lentils and peas are another great sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber. As I mentioned before, soluble fiber dissolves in water and helps to lower cholesterol and toxins. While insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool which is essential for proper elimination and preventing constipation. Try adding some legumes to soups, salads, or make a big batch of chili. Also not technically a legume but definitely worth mentioning: chia seeds! Chia seeds are packed with fiber, with one ounce containing a whopping 10 grams!
3. Whole Grains
Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber. Including oats, quinoa, rye, barley, whole wheat bread, and brown rice in your diet is a sure way to increase fiber consumption. These foods will help you feel fuller longer and provide your body with the fiber it needs. Less processed forms of oatmeal, such as steel cut oats and rolled oats are a better option for hitting your fiber goals. Although quick oats may be convenient, they contain a lot less fiber because of the extra processing they undergo to become a “quick” cooking method.
4. As a last resort, Supplementation
If you’re having trouble getting enough fiber from food alone during times of traveling, or busy schedules, supplementation can be a good option for helping you reach your daily goals. Prioritize getting fiber through food but in a pinch or as needed, fiber supplements can come in handy.
How to Start Eating Fiber
Tracking your daily food intake is a great way to create healthier eating habits and see where you are at with daily fiber. Increase incrementally by 5g daily until your daily fiber goal is met. Fiber and water work together so staying hydrated throughout the day is important for allowing fiber to do its job. Shoot for half your body weight in ounces and add 5-10 ounces as a range depending on your needs for that day. If you are highly active, sitting in a sauna/steam room, or outside in the sun for long periods of time you may need more.
Fiber is truly the MVP component in our carbohydrates. As we have learned, proper fiber intake is tied to so many healthful benefits, from overall digestive/detoxification support and skin health, to improving mood and energy levels. Now that we know all about fiber and what it does, it’s time to put our new found knowledge into FRUITion (hehe). Next time you head to the grocery store be sure to add fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains to your shopping list and you’ll be well on your way to meeting your fiber goals in no time!
Alma Ervedosa is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), specializing in nutrition counseling. Alma believes in a functional, whole person approach to nutrition counseling. See Alma’s full bio to learn more.