Friends, I’ve been gabbing on and on about fiber, why it’s so great, and you and your families should eat more of it, blah blah blah. I haven’t, though, gone into details about just what fiber is, where you can find it, and how – and, more importantly, why – you should eat more of it. So let’s get to it, shall we?
Let’s start with what it is. Fiber ONLY comes from plant sources. Basically, fiber is the parts of the plant food that your body cannot digest. As amazingly efficient as your digestive system might be, fiber passes through the whole system relatively intact. Fiber comes in two main types: soluble and insoluble, and each type has a different function in your body.
First, insoluble fiber, is not soluble (cannot dissolve) in water. Insoluble fiber provides bulk, increasing the mass and absorbing fluid as it moves through your system, promotes the movement of material, so it can be of benefit to those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Good sources of insoluble fiber are whole-wheat flour and grains, wheat and corn bran, nuts and seeds, some fruits and vegetables, such as avocado, cauliflower, green beans, celery and potato skins.
Second, soluble fiber IS soluble (can dissolve) in water. Soluble fiber forms a gel-ish like substance as it absorbs the water in your GI tract, slowing the movement of the bulk. It softens the mass as well as it absorbs the water. Both of these characteristics can be especially helpful for individuals who suffer from constipation or painful bowel movements. Soluble fiber is especially important for people who suffer from diabetes and from high cholesterol levels. The gel-like mass slows and/or impedes the absorption of fats, cholesterols and sugars among other nutrients, which is helpful when trying to reduce intake of these same items (I won’t bore you with the details; suffice it to say, the GI tract is efficient, but that goo is hard to break down, plus it hinders the acids that want to get at the fats and cholesterols in the first place). Good sources of soluble fiber include legumes; grains such as oats and barley; fruits such as bananas, mangoes, apples and pears; veggies like broccoli and carrots; and nuts, especially almonds.
How much? Too much can be a bit … taxing, shall we say, especially if you go from one extreme (too little, which is where most American fall) to the other too quickly (which can cause gas and bloating, and a bit of discomfort). It’s best to up your intake slowly. Generally, all ages should aim for 14 grams per 1,000 calories.
What does fiber do? Fiber is probably best known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation. But foods containing fiber can provide other health benefits as well, such as helping to maintain a healthy weight and lowering your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some kinds of cancer. Sounds like a miracle food, right? It is, in a way.
A diet with sufficient fiber has many benefits, which include:
Normalizes bowel movements. Dietary fiber increases the weight and size of your stool and softens it. It might sound counter-intuitive, but bulky stool is easier to pass, decreasing your chance of constipation. If you have loose, watery stools, fiber may also help to solidify the stool because it absorbs water and adds bulk to stool.
Helps maintain bowel health. Sufficient fiber in your diet may lower your risk of developing hemorrhoids and small pouches in your colon (diverticular disease). Additionally, some fiber is fermented in the colon. While that sounds awful, researchers are finding this to be a good thing (this may play a role in preventing diseases of the colon). Because of the insolubility, the fiber makes it all the way to the large intestine and helps feed the good bacteria, which create SCFAs – short chain fatty acids. It’s these fatty acids that fuel the cells of your intestine, which in short, makes your GI tract – and you!—healthy and happy. Another benefit attributed to dietary fiber is prevention of colorectal cancer.
Lowers cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber may help lower total blood cholesterol levels by lowering low-density lipoprotein, or "bad," cholesterol levels. Having sufficient fiber in your diet helps reduce how much of these bad guys are absorbed in the first place (traps them in ‘goo’, making it harder for digestive enzymes to digest them), as well as helping to produce more ‘good’ cholesterol that will help clean up the bad stuff that is already circulating. Studies also have shown that fiber may have other heart-health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation.
Helps control blood sugar levels. In people with diabetes, fiber — particularly soluble fiber — can slow the absorption of sugar and help improve blood sugar levels (again, here’s that ‘goo’; pretty magical stuff, am I right?). In the same light, a healthy diet that includes insoluble fiber may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Aids in achieving healthy weight. High-fiber foods generally require more chewing time, which gives your body time to register when you're no longer hungry, so you're less likely to overeat. Also, a higher-fiber meal tends to feel larger and linger longer in your tummy, so you stay/feel full for a longer period of time. And high-fiber diets also tend to be less "energy dense," which means they have fewer calories for the same volume of more processed food.
These benefits aren’t just for big people; kids need to eat fiber and reap the benefits, too. I mention fiber so often in my other articles because eating sufficient amounts of fiber give the benefits listed above, and they also help keep tummies full longer. Rumbling stomachs are not a good thing, regardless of your age. Especially in a classroom, though, and with busy kids, keeping those tummy rumbles at bay until lunchtime is helpful for making the school day that much more enjoyable. A hungry kid is not an especially cooperative one; not a lot of learning can take place when a child is hungry.
Now for the big question: How do we get our families to eat more fiber? Keep this in mind: as a general rule of thumb, the longer the ingredient list, the more processed, the less fiber in the food. Here are 5 suggestions to up your intake:
1. Brown bread. Brown rice. Whole grain pasta, grains and old-fashioned oats. Look for the grain to be listed first in the ingredient list. The browner and the seedier the bread/cracker, the better it is for you, fiber-wise. For those just venturing into the higher-fiber realm, it’s probably better to go slow. Start with subbing in whole wheat flour for a portion of the flour in recipes (especially good with white whole wheat flour).
2. Eat your fruits and veggies. WITH the peel. Once you scrub the peel, it is clean enough to eat, and that extra bit of skin is a great source of fiber.
3. Snack on things like popcorn, whole grain crackers and veggies with hummus or bean dip. All whole grain, all good sources of fiber.
4. Berries! Even frozen ones are beneficial. Having a berry smoothie in the mornings (handful of berries + banana + yogurt = tasty and good-for-you smoothie) is a great way to break your all-night fast and still get out the door in a hurry in the morning.
5. Beans! If you have a crockpot, making a pot of beans from scratch couldn’t be easier. Even canned beans, though, offer a great source of fiber. Want an easy snack idea? Take a can of beans (garbanzoes are a favorite), rinse them quickly, and then put them on roasting pan with a bit of olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper. Put it in the oven at 400, stirring every 15 minutes or so until crispy and browned. Serve!
Go to it, friends! Eat more fiber!