What’s All the Hype About Fiber?

Posted on April 17, 2011


It used to be called “roughage.”

For a number of years, the term “fiber” has been the watchword for many healthy eating campaigns. For a long time it was referred to as “roughage,” but that term has mostly gone out of style. Whatever you call it, fiber is a very necessary part of any healthy eating lifestyle.

Before the advent of processed foods and fast foods, getting enough fiber in the diet was not of major concern. It just happened. Grains were whole, vegetables and fruits were unprocessed, and the diet consisted of more real foods that have fiber naturally. Unfortunately, today this is no longer the case, and as a result, it has become necessary for us to become knowledgeable about what fiber is, where we get it and how much we need.

What is fiber exactly?

The term fiber is used to describe certain complex organic compounds that are part of the carbohydrate family. Fibers may be either polysaccharides, such as cellulose or pectin, or non-polysaccharides, such as lignins. In either case, the structure of the molecules is such that these fibers are not easily broken down by your digestive system. This is in contrast to other carbohydrates, like most starches and sugars, which are generally easy to digest.
One exception is that some starches can become like fibers because they resist digestion. This is the case when you eat an unripe banana or a raw potato.

Fiber can be categorized as soluble fiber or insoluble fiber. Both types of fiber are essential to a healthy eating lifestyle.

Soluble fiber, as the name suggests, is fiber that dissolves in water to form a gel like substance in your digestive tract. If you have ever made your own homemade jelly, you will know about a substance called “pectin” that you add to the mixture to help your jelly to gel. Pectin, a soluble fiber, occurs naturally in some fruits and vegetables, and when you eat the fruit, the pectin forms a gel-like substance in your digestive tract that eases digestion and elimination. Other soluble fibers include mucilages (not the glue!) and gums (not the kind you chew!).

Soluble fibers hold moisture, softening the stools to make elimination more comfortable. In addition to helping to keep your digestive tract healthy, soluble fibers also slow down the absorption of glucose (sugar) and seem to be a factor in lowering blood cholesterol. This means that getting enough soluble fiber in your diet could help to lower the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

Insoluble fiber is the relatively indigestible part of the food you eat. It basically “goes in one end and comes out the other.” This type of fiber includes cellulose, lignins and some hemicelluloses, which are the structural components of plants.

Although, humans cannot digest cellulose, ruminants, such as cows are able to digest these fibers. That’s why cows can thrive from eating grass, which seems to us a very limited cuisine.

Insoluble fiber creates bulk in your GI tract and helps to keep things moving. In this way, insoluble fibers help you to avoid constipation and keep your digestive tract, including your colon, healthy.

Fiber, both soluble and insoluble, is found in plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and whole grains. It is generally fiber that gives texture to foods. Celery has crunch because of the insoluble fibrous strings in its makeup. The snap when you bite into a fresh apple comes from the pectin fiber in its skin. Whole wheat bread has a rougher texture, from the bran fiber that covers the wheat kernel before it is ground into whole-wheat flour. Corn on the cob has a satisfying crunch due to the fiber in the outer skins of the corn kernels.

All of the following foods contain significant amounts of fiber:

Apples, oranges, strawberries, raisins, cantaloupe, pears, sweet potatoes, avocado, celery, broccoli, cabbage, corn, carrots, Brussels sprouts, flax seeds, nuts, lentils, beans, brown rice, oatmeal, 100% whole-wheat bread.

Dairy foods, meats, oils and sugars are noticeably missing from this list of fiber foods, because they do not contribute fiber to your diet unless it is added during processing.

Why do I need fiber?

In addition to promoting good digestion and elimination, the fiber in many carbohydrate foods can contribute to a healthy colon and decreased exposure to harmful toxins. Sufficient fiber in the diet has also been associated with decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and irritable bowel syndrome.

Some health experts believe that the health of the colon is directly correlated with overall health. One way to help keep your colon healthy is to get enough fiber in your diet and keep things moving!

If you are a visual person, you can think of fiber as being like a whiskbroom that sweeps through your intestines, carrying away debris and leaving behind a healthy and clean environment.

Fiber can help you with weight loss.

Since fiber creates bulk in your stomach and digestive tract, it can help you to lose weight by allowing you to feel full, while consuming fewer calories. In addition, foods that are good sources of fiber are often lower in fat and calories, so if you eat the same volume of food, you may actually eat fewer calories, without feeling deprived.

One caveat to this point is to be careful of weight loss products that are merely fibers that produce bulk. It is always better to get your fiber from food, if possible. It may be wiser to spend your money on real food rather than expensive fiber pills.

How much fiber do I need?

Adults generally need about 25-30 grams of fiber each day. Children need less, depending on age. A rule of thumb for determining the amount of fiber a child needs is “age-plus-five,” meaning add five to the child’s age to determine the amount of fiber they need. (i.e. an eight-year-old would need about 13 grams of fiber [8+5] each day.)

Check the label.

You will need to check the labels of the foods you buy to see how much fiber there is in a serving, and then be aware of how many servings you eat. However, if you eat a lot of fresh, whole foods, you will probably get enough fiber without doing the math.

What if I don’t get enough fiber?

In addition to feeling sluggish, if you do not eat enough fiber-containing foods, you may experience constipation and/or hemorrhoids, and could increase your risk of getting colon cancer and other digestive disorders, as well as, diabetes and heart disease.

What happens if I eat too much fiber?

As with anything, you can get too much of a good thing. Excessive fiber in the diet can lead to gastro-intestinal distress and can also limit the absorption of important nutrients.

Added fiber is a selling point in the food supply.

In recent years, products have appeared on the market that allow you to add fiber to your diet without eating fiber-rich foods. These products are taken as a tablet or dissolved in water to drink as a beverage. In addition, many processed foods, including yogurts and cereals, have fiber added to them, as a way to increase fiber intake while eating a food that normally does not contain a significant amount of fiber. While these products may be helpful in easing fiber concerns, it is probably better to get most of your fiber from real foods whenever possible.

I recently e-mailed a yogurt company that makes excellent, organic yogurt and asked them if they could make a nice organic yogurt without adding fiber. (I had discovered that the fiber that they were adding, called inulin, caused me to have digestive distress.) Low and behold, a few months later, I discovered that they had removed the inulin from their products and now I can enjoy all of their delicious, organic yogurts. It probably had nothing to do with my e-mail, but it was fun to thin it might have made a difference!

The secret for getting enough fiber in your diet is simple.

Eat lots of fresh, whole, plant foods! Whenever possible leave edible skins (after a thorough washing) on your fruits and vegetables. Exchange that white bread or bagel for a tasty whole-grain version. Add beans to your diet in all of their tasty variety. If you eat a lot of packaged foods, check the labels and choose the ones that have more fiber.

For most of us who do not get enough, every little bit of fiber we can find in our diet will add up to increased health and wellness.

I am convinced that what we eat and how we eat plays a major role in how we feel and particularly, how well we are. For this reason, I would like as many people as possible to become more aware of what healthy eating involves, and of the extreme benefits that can be found in being conscious of what and how we eat.

Eat and be healthy with my warmest regards,

Suzy Staywell


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