Most people have heard that fiber is important for health. But do you know why? Fiber is an essential nutrient that many people don’t fully understand, and many Americans are grossly lacking. It is estimated that most adults in the USA are consuming approximately 15 grams per day on average. This is only about 50% of the daily recommended amounts. For men, the goal is 35 grams per day, and for women, it is 28 grams per day.
But what is the big deal? Why should we aim to increase the fiber in our diet? Let’s take a look at the top 5 important ways that fiber can improve your overall health.
1. It can help keep you regular.
This is the benefit that most people are aware of: fiber makes you poop. This is true, and it is so important! Dietary fiber can help bulk up your stool, making it easier to pass and allowing your body to get rid of any harmful waste that it doesn’t need. When you aren’t having regular bowel movements, you are at a higher risk of certain conditions, such as diverticular disease or colon cancer.
There are two different types of fiber found in our foods: soluble and insoluble. Many foods have a combination of both types, but insoluble fiber provides the most benefit for normalizing bowel movements. Insoluble fiber can be found in foods like whole wheat products, nuts, beans, and vegetables, to name a few.
2. It can feed the good bacteria in your gut.
Did you know that your gut contains trillions of good and bad bacteria? Together, these bacteria make up what we call your gut microbiome or microbiota. The balance of these bacteria is essential to overall health and wellbeing. In fact, gut health is a pretty hot topic in research right now with many studies linking the number and variety of bacteria to various chronic diseases and conditions, such as obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, mental health (depression and anxiety), lung function, as well as general inflammation and immunity. The goal is to support the good bacteria so that they can thrive and keep the “bad” bacteria in check in order to avoid some of these negative health consequences.
So what does this have to do with fiber? Well, fiber is the main food source for the bacteria in our gut. If we want to have a healthy, thriving gut microbiota, we have to feed the good bacteria to allow it to take up residence in our gut. By eating a wide variety of fiber-filled foods, we are encouraging diverse populations of bacteria to remain in our intestinal tract.
3. It lowers cholesterol levels.
Now, let’s go back to the second type, the soluble fiber. One of the major benefits of soluble fiber is it’s ability to lower cholesterol levels. Research has shown that soluble fiber can reduce the amount of the “bad” cholesterol, or LDL cholesterol, in our blood. This, in turn reduces your risk of a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke. Learn more about how to reduce your risk and what this has to do with blood sugar by taking my Diabetes Basics Masterclass.
4. It improves blood sugar control.
Fiber is a huge factor in blood sugar management! It greatly slows down the digestion of your meal. When this happens, the sugar from the other carbs in the meal do not get absorbed as quickly, causing a slow rise in your blood sugar rather than a quick spike. Ultimately, the carbs you eat still matter, even if you consume a good amount of fiber. Because the sugar will all eventually get to your blood. However, if the carbs are being slowly absorbed a little bit at a time, your body, and the insulin you are producing or injecting, can take care of the sugar a little bit at a time, too. Theoretically, that means that your blood sugar should never reach the peak levels that you might see with a low-fiber meal.
The picture below illustrates this idea by showing the impact of different foods on your blood sugar. The axis along the bottom is showing the passing of time, and the vertical axis is showing the change in blood sugar. You can see that the low fiber meal (the red curve) raises the blood sugar a lot higher in a shorter period of time, while the high fiber meal (the yellow curve) doesn’t have nearly as big of an impact on blood sugar and it happens over a couple of hours.
5. It aids in weight loss.
Last, but not least, fiber can help you lose weight. By slowing down digestion, it helps keep you full for longer and helps you feel more satisfied with your meal. Have you ever eaten a big meal then felt unexplainably hungry an hour later? If your meal was mostly carbs without much fiber, this makes sense because the food would digest pretty quickly and also get out of your system quickly. Fiber helps sustain the energy from your food so that you don’t feel the need to eat again an hour later. Overall, this can help reduce calorie intake and assist you in your weight loss efforts.
How to increase your fiber intake
Increasing your fiber intake doesn’t have to be a difficult task. Generally, if you are focusing on incorporating fresh, whole foods in your diet, you will likely be consuming a good amount. It is important to drink plenty of water as you increase your intake of fiber to avoid uncomfortable GI side effects. Aim for at least 6-8 glasses of water per day (48-64 ounces/day).
Check out my post on top fiber sources here to start increasing the amount you consume today!