What is fiber?
Dietary fiber is the indigestible parts of plant-based food, also called roughage or bulk. It’s a type of carbohydrate, but unlike other carbs, it cannot be broken down into digestible sugar molecules. Therefore, it passes through the digestive tract relatively intact, but on its journey, it does a lot of work!
Fiber is important to digestion and regularity, weight management, blood sugar regulation, cholesterol maintenance and more. It’s also been linked to longevity and decreasing the risk of cancer.
Most Americans do not get enough fiber. Men (or larger-bodied people) under the age of 50 are supposed to get 38 grams a day, and over the age of 50, 30 grams a day. Women (or smaller-bodied people) under the age of 50 are recommended to eat 25 grams a day, and over the age of 50, 21 grams a day. Right now, most Americans average at about 15 grams a day, significantly less than recommended.
Two kinds of fiber
There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both of them are important and have different benefits for our health.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and becomes a gel-like substance, soaking up potentially harmful compounds before they are absorbed by the body. Soluble fiber helps decrease blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Some foods high in soluble fiber include beans, peas, lentils, oats, citrus, blueberries, apples (with skin on), and barley.
Insoluble fiber speeds up the passage of food through the digestive system, which helps prevent constipation, maintain regularity, and limits how much time toxins like BPA, mercury, and pesticides stay in the body. Foods high in insoluble fiber include wheat bran, brown rice, cauliflower, potatoes (with skin on), tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Nuts and carrots are a good source of both types of fiber.
Benefits of increased dietary fiber
Eating more fiber has many benefits throughout the body:
Digestion: Fiber increases stool bulk, making it easier to pass than if it were hard or watery. It makes life more comfortable in general and maintains colorectal health. A high fiber diet can help reduce the risk of hemorrhoids and diverticulitis (small painful pouches on the colon).
Heart health: Eating more fiber helps lower cholesterol. As digestion improves, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood, reducing levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Blood sugar: Increasing fiber intake can reduce blood glucose levels. This is important in terms of the risk of type 2 diabetes. Soluble fiber is especially helpful here.
Cancer prevention: Increased fiber is associated with decreased cancer risk, especially colorectal cancer and breast cancer. Also, eating more fruits and vegetables means you’re getting more antioxidants and phytochemicals (plant-based compounds) that reduce the odds even further.
Gut bacteria and food allergies: Fermented fiber in our digestive tract feeds the good bacteria in our gut. Because of our highly processed, high sugar, standard American diet, people are not producing the right gut bacteria to tackle foods commonly associated with allergies, like peanuts and shellfish.
Without the right bacteria, food particles can enter the bloodstream via the gut. Fiber helps produce a bacterium called Clostridia which keeps the gut secure.
When fed fiber, the good bacteria in the gut produce short-chain fatty acids that lower inflammation in the body. Inflammation wreaks havok in the body, and is at the root of most degenerative diseases. You have to eat enough grams per day on a consistent basis, and positive changes can start to happen within just a few days.
Detoxification: Fiber scrubs the GI tract and promotes the elimination of toxins. Soluble fiber soaks them up, and insoluble fiber moves them out. Make sure you drink lots of water every day to aid this process.
Fiber supplements do not carry as much fiber as fiber-rich foods like lentils or peas. Just sprinkling a little fiber powder on your food will not be enough. Plus, fiber-rich foods are also high in other vital nutrients, which you won’t get with supplements.
Tips for starting a high fiber diet
When beginning a high fiber diet, start slowly. At first, more fiber in the diet can cause gas, bloating, and even diarrhea. Increase by about 3-5 grams a day over two weeks, and let your body get used to the increase in fiber.
- You want to aim for eating at a minimum of 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day
- Replace white flour with whole grain flour. Eventually, you can move away from refined flour altogether, eating fewer baked and processed foods and more whole grains. (Good rule of thumb: the closer it is to how it came out of the ground, the better it is for you)
- Replace white rice with brown rice
- Add wheat bran to other foods like hot cereal, applesauce, meatloaf or muffins.
High fiber foods
Make sure to include some of these foods in your diet each and every day to maintain optimal health:
- Legumes (chickpeas and lentils are my favorites, and so nutritious)
- Apples or pears, with the skin on
- Peas and split peas
- Pearled or regular barley
- Popcorn (without butter)
- Broccoli and cauliflower
- Sweet or white potatoes, with the skin on
- Dark leafy greens like kale, collards, and spinach
- Oatmeal or granola (make sure to soak your oats in water the night before with a little lemon juice added, to increase digestibility and nutrition, and to reduce phytic acid, an anti-nutrient which impairs mineral absorption)
- Dried fruit
- Citrus fruits like grapefruits and oranges
- Brown rice
- Chia seeds (not just for Chia pets anymore! I love to make chia pudding with them, or use them as an egg replacer in baked goods)
I love quinoa, and often cook a huge batch and add to soups or salads. I also make my own soaked oat granola and dry it out in the dehydrator, as well as grain-free granola with shredded carrot and coconut as the base and lots of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. And chia pudding is a big favorite in my home, kid-approved!
What are some of your favorite high fiber foods?