What is Fiber?
Fiber is a nutrient that is only found in plants. It allows plants to maintain structure and shape similar to how bones and muscles allow us to do the same. Humans do not have enzymes in our bodies to breakdown fiber, so it is passed through our digestive tract without being digested. Fiber is classified how it’s ability to dissolve in water. These two classifications are soluble and insoluble fiber. Due to the structural difference these two types of fiber have roles within the body.
Soluble fiber can be referred to as viscous (thick or sticky) since it forms a gel after it is dissolved in water. This gel helps promote heart health since it binds to cholesterol in the intestine, preventing it’s uptake in the body by allowing it to be eliminated in the stool. Soluble fiber also slows digestion which stabilizes the release of blood sugar and allows for better absorption of nutrients. Foods that are high in soluble fiber include oats, apples, avocados, beans, peas, bananas, and sweet potatoes.
Insoluble fiber can be thought of as “roughage”. This tough fiber does not dissolve in water and it not easily breakdown in the digestive tract. This results in insoluble fiber increasing the bulk of stool and its transit time through the digestive tract which provides regularity to bowel movements. Increasing the intake of insoluble fiber is the best way to prevent and treat constipation. Foods that are high in insoluble fiber are bran cereal, wheat bran, beans, lentils, nuts, and flaxseeds.
Now let’s take a closer look at how fiber promotes health
Gut health – Constipation which is defined as infrequent bowel movements or difficulty passing stool effects millions of people are the world. Some of the negative side effects associated with constipation include lumpy/hard stools, straining during bowel movements, bloating, stomach aches, and increased risk of colon cancer. As mentioned earlier, insoluble fiber is great for preventing and treating constipation since it encourages optimal food passage through the digestive tract. Another way fiber benefits the gut is by acting as a prebiotic (food) for healthy bacteria in the colon. This allows for beneficial bacteria to outnumber harmful bacteria which can prevent diseases from occurring.
Blood sugar – Fiber helps maintain blood sugar in two ways. The first way is that it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels because the human body doesn’t have the enzymes to break it down. For diabetics that count carbohydrates, fiber can actually be subtracted from the total grams of carb you are eating. The second way fiber helps maintain blood sugar levels is by slowing the release of carbohydrates into the blood stream.
Heart disease – Several cardiovascular disease benefits have been associated with fiber intake. The most well know benefit is how soluble fiber intake helps lower blood cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol in the gut. Studies have also shown a reduction in blood pressure with increased fiber intake.
Getting more fiber in your diet
- Eating more whole grains – Switching from refined grains such as white rice, white bread, enriched pasta, and flour tortilla to whole grains such as 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole wheat past.
- Eat more fresh fruit – Fruit is a sweet way to increase your fiber intake. Add fruit to cereal, eaten as a snack, or enjoyed as a simple dessert.
- Leave the skin on fruits and vegetables – The skin usually contains the insoluble fiber
- Load up with beans – Beans are some of the best sources of both insoluble and soluble fiber. Incorporate beans into soups, salads, and casseroles, or puree them to make a delicious dip.