We’ve all heard about the importance of a high fiber diet and how it can help us stay healthy. But why is fiber so important and how does it improve our health?
What is fiber?
Dietary fiber is the part of our food that can’t be digested, so it needs to pass through our body to be excreted. There are two kinds of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber dissolves into the water in our bodies to form a gel-like substance. Soluble fiber slows down the passage of food through our digestive systems and is found in a wide range of foods including oats and oat bran, cucumbers, and blueberries.
Insoluble fiber doesn’t form into a gel. Instead, it gives bulk to the food as it travels through our bodies, encouraging it to pass more quickly. This makes it important for people who are prone to slow digestion and problems such as constipation, as it creates bulkier stools that pass more quickly. Insoluble fiber is found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, whole grains, green beans, and potatoes.
Many foods, such as beans and nuts, have a combination of both types of fiber.
Fiber reduces cholesterol
Soluble fiber can help lower the level of LDL cholesterol (so-called ‘bad cholesterol) in our bodies. LDL cholesterol lines the walls of our arteries, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood around our bodies. The extra strain on the heart can cause heart disease and strokes.
Fiber slows the absorption of sugar
A high fiber diet slows the absorption of sugar into our bodies. This is important because the body produces insulin in response to the levels of sugar in our bodies, and sudden increases in sugar levels can cause a spike in insulin production. Of course, patients with diabetes must control their insulin levels carefully to avoid hypoglycemia, when they may become disoriented because of low blood sugar.
Fiber can help prevent gallstones and kidney stones
Insulin spikes can cause the body to develop gallstones or kidney stones. Aside from being very painful, these stones can cause serious infections and lead to further complications such as kidney disease if untreated. A high fiber diet helps regulate sugar absorption which minimizes insulin spikes.
Fiber improves digestive health
A high fiber diet encourages the digestive tract to function more quickly and efficiently. This keeps the colon healthy, helping to prevent conditions such as diverticulitis (when polyps in the colon become inflamed), and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It can also help prevent constipation and hemorrhoids, which can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful.
Fiber can help prevent some cancers
Some studies have indicated that a fiber-rich diet can help prevent some cancers. The faster passage of food through the digestive system means there is less time for harmful chemicals to be absorbed into the body, and maintaining a healthy colon can fight the onset of colorectal cancer.
Fiber helps with weight management
Fiber is an important ally if you’re trying to lose weight. Because high fiber foods take longer to chew and are bulkier, they can help you to feel fuller quicker and stave off hunger pangs for longer.
How much fiber should I be eating?
The recommended daily intake of fibre is 21-25g for women, and 30-38g for men, depending on your age, but most people have a much lower amount each day.
Will changing my diet really make a difference?
You might think that changing to a high fiber diet would take a long time to make an impact. But a recent study saw volunteers in the US take on a traditional African diet of vegetables, fruits, beans, and plants, while volunteers in Africa tried a ‘western’ diet with high levels of fat and meat. Scientists were stunned to discover that the levels of colonic inflammation in the Americans reduced significantly in just two weeks and the Africans showed increased inflammation and other changes that could develop into colon cancer.
How can I get more fiber in my diet?
Begin by lowering your intake of fat, processed foods, and meat. Make sure that you eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, as well as whole grains, beans and pulses, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and you’ll be doing your digestive system power of good.