While researching all the great health benefits associated with chia seeds, I realized how little I actually knew about many of the nutrients and substances found in our everyday foods, let alone how these substances provide the health benefits that they do. With this realization at hand, I started reading up on how, biochemically, fiber is of benefit to your health. Before you reflect on the last fiber supplement commercial you saw and come to the conclusion that fiber is only useful for fixing inconsistency problems in the bathroom, hear me out. Yes, I have seen these somewhat awkward commercials describing all the wonderful weight loss and stool softening benefits of fiber consumption. However, it wasn’t until I did a little digging on the topic of fiber that I learned exactly how overly simplified these commercials truly are. The commercials and their corresponding websites advertising fiber supplements present fiber from a medicinal point of view (i.e. aiding in weight loss, or solving inconsistency problems). They simply do not do justice to the everyday health benefits of fiber consumption. Which is truly sad, because as I learned, fiber has some incredible health benefits.
The current recommendation for fiber intake is that you should consume 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories you eat. It is generally advised that women consume 2000 calories each day and men should consume 2600 calories each day. Therefore, when following these guidelines, a women should consume 28 grams of fiber each day while men should consume 36 grams. Crazily, most Americans eat less than half of this recommended amount. Seeing how American’s have ample opportunity to get their hands on high fiber foods, such as whole grain foods, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, this lack of fiber consumption appears to be a direct result of poor food choices (1).
While the substance of fiber was first described in the scientific literature in 1953, it wasn’t recognized as having important physiological function until the 1970’s (2). Since then scientists have slowly been discovering and defining the numerous health benefits fiber provides us, as well as how it provides these benefits (2). Fiber is simply described as carbohydrates found in a variety of plant sources that are resistant to digestion within the small intestine. When fiber cannot be digested within the small intestines, it is transferred to the large intestines where it undergoes fermentation. I have summarized the general health benefits of fiber consumption and digestion as follows. First, digesting fiber produces gut hormones that have a hand in regulating satiety (the feeling of being full), which, in turn, prevents you from over eating (3). Second, digesting fiber can regulate the level of energy absorbed from the food you eat. Third, digesting fiber produces short chain fatty acids (just go with me here) that are important for the binding of bile acids, cholesterols, and other chemicals in your digestive tract. Finally, and perhaps the most well-known/advertised health benefit, digesting fiber increases fecal bulk and frequency of gastric emptying.
So what does all this mean exactly? How are these biochemical processes good for us? Well, similar to those awkward commercials, the biochemistry of fiber digestion is best illustrated by how it prevents and aids in diseases and conditions that can be associated with low fiber diets. Fiber consumption has been shown to be important in prevention and recovering from cardiovascular diseases, type two diabetes, obesity, and cancers (1, 3).
Cardiovascular diseases affect up to one third of the US population, and were the leading cause of death in 2005. This is unfortunate because cardiovascular diseases are one of the most modifiable causes of death (1, 3). In fact, 82% of cardiovascular diseases are attributed to lifestyle (i.e. diet, physical activity, and smoking), with 60% of the 82% being directly attributed to dietary patterns (1). So how can increasing your fiber consumption help prevent cardiovascular diseases? As previously described, the fermentation of fiber in your large intestines creates short chain fatty acids which are suspected to bind both bile acids and cholesterol in your gut. Once bound, using the restroom removes these compounds from your body and therefore reduces the level of cholesterol within your system. Studies have shown that for every 10 additional grams of fiber you add to your diet, the mortality risk from cardiovascular diseases decreases by 17-35% (3). Furthermore, consuming the recommended amount of fiber each day can help prevent the development of cardiovascular diseases for the same reasons (1) .
The statistics surround diabetes, like cardiovascular diseases, are not looking so good. Currently, one half of Americans has diabetes, prediabetes, or are at considerable risk of developing diabetes. Of those diagnosed with diabetes, 90% of cases are of type two diabetes triggered by lifestyle choices (1). This trend is only expected to get worse as we continue to consume high fat diets with minimal fiber intake. The good news is, similar to cardiovascular diseases, we can retake control. A review of five separate studies showed that when subjects increased fiber intake and reduced fat consumption they saw a 29% reduction in the development of diabetes (1). Furthermore, women that consumed the recommended 28 grams of fiber daily had a 22% reduced risk of developing diabetes when compared to women consuming only half of the recommended amount (3). Fiber consumption will increase the frequency and bulk of bowel movements and decrease the amount of time your body has to absorb excess sugars (both natural and artificial) and harmful substances into the body (1, 3). This results in greater glycemic control and less stress on you overall.
Another serious disorder threatening Americans today is obesity. Approximately 66% of adults in the United States are overweight or obese (3). Obesity is dangerous for your health as it puts strain on almost every system within your body each day. It is because of this strain that obesity plays such a significant role in both cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, as well as many other disease states. Lucky for us, increased fiber consumption may play a role in helping to prevent and resolve obesity. When fiber is fermented in your large intestine, gut hormones are produced. These hormones have a role in regulating satiety to prevent you from over eating (3). Furthermore, as described with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, preventing absorption of excess sugars and cholesterols in the body, reduces the risk of becoming obese. In fact, by increasing your daily fiber intake, you can reduce your risk for obesity by 30% (1).
Everyone is aware of the dangers of cancer, so I won’t scare you with any statistics here. Luckily, when it comes to colorectal, small intestine, oral, larynx, colon, and breast cancers, increased fiber intake has been shown to have preventative properties. It, again, comes down to increased frequency of restroom use which shortens the amount of time potentially harmful compounds stay within your gut. When those short chain fatty acids are produced, they have the potential to absorb and remove any compounds left over from digesting your food or from everyday bodily processes that, if they hang around too long, may cause cancer down the road. For example, increased fiber consumption can prevent colon cancer for these very reasons because it prevents the formation of polyps in the gut. However, fiber intake can effectively remove excess estrogen from our systems and prevent long term exposure (1, 3).
Now that you know what increased fiber consumption can do for your health, are you ready to increase your daily intake? While yes, you could use artificial, highly processed processed fiber supplements, I prefer to go straight to the original source. Some of the foods that contain the most fiber are easily accessible and are listed below. This list is a mixture of foods that contain either insoluble fiber, soluble fiber, or both. While we did not go into great detail about the differences between these forms of fiber (because, honestly, the definition is constantly changing and you need both anyway) you should strive for a mixture of both types of fiber. By eating a well-balanced diet high in fiber and low in fat you should be well on your way to a healthy, disease preventing lifestyle.
Fruits and vegetables:
*Don’t forget to eat the skin! There is a substantial amount of fiber found in fruit skins.
Grains and legumes:
Beans- of almost any variety! They have by far the most fiber
Need some inspiration? One of my favorite, fiber filled dinners is Melissa d’Arabian’s Black Bean Nacho Burger recipe.
Note: While fiber seems like a superfood in and of itself, it should be noted that to see significant changes in your health, many of these studies were conducted by adding fiber to the diet as well as reducing fat intake.
Is there something else about the benefits of fiber that you want to know? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d love your feedback!
Want to learn more? References below:
- Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis Jr, R. H., Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., Waters, V., and Williams, C. L. (2009) Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr. Rev. 67, 188–205
- Fuller, S., Beck, E., Salman, H., and Tapsell, L. (2016) New Horizons for the Study of Dietary Fiber and Health: A Review. Plant Foods Hum. Nutr. 71, 1–12
- Lattimer, J. M., and Haub, M. D. (2010) Effects of Dietary Fiber and Its Components on Metabolic Health. Nutrients. 2, 1266–1289