OK, boys and girls. Its time to talk about fiber!
Everyone says you need it. No one says why. Some say you need 12-24 grams of it a day (according to the British Nutrition Foundation). Others, like the United States National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine say you need to ingest 20-35 grams of fiber a day.
Too much leads to bloating, cramps, and gas (just what you want when you're headed to the gym!) Too little backs you up for days.
In truth, the average American consumes less than 50% of the dietary fiber levels for good health (Source: Wikipedia).
By the time you're finished reading this article, you'll not only know why fiber is so important, but you'll also have a new appreciation for the stuff!
But in order to know how to use it to do your body good - you gotta know what it does!
Warning! Science Ahead!
For starters, fiber isn't digested by your body like fats, proteins, or carbs. In fact, it stays pretty much the same until it hits your colon.
That's where the two types of fiber come into play: those that don't dissolve in water (insoluble fiber) and those that do (soluble fiber).
First, insoluble fiber. This is the stuff that makes you "go". If you're dealing with constipation or do not have regular bowel movements, this is the type of fiber you're looking for! Whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts and many vegetables are good sources of insoluble fiber.
While that may seem like the most important type of fiber to consume, don't forget the other, just-as-important-type of fiber, soluble fiber.
Think about the last time you cooked oatmeal on the stove. The 'stuff' that gives it that creamy, thick consistence we associate with oatmeal? That's soluble fiber. This type of fiber helps lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels.
Wanna help stave off pre-diabetes, heart disease, or diverticular disease? This is the stuff that does it! (I told you it was just as important as insoluble fiber!)
You can find generous quantities of soluble fiber in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium. (Source: Mayo Clinic)
C'mon and Take a Free Ride
Now that you know about the two types of fiber, let's explore what happens when you eat it! It all starts with breakfast...
Call it a moment of weakness, but let's say you have a bowl of cereal for breakfast, chocked full of refined carbohydrates.
Because these carbs are fast-digesting, they are quickly absorbed by the body - increasing the amount of sugar headed towards your liver. As your glucose levels (blood sugar) increase, it calls in an order of extra insulin from your pancreas.
Insulin is the "traffic cop" in your system that directs where the energy from the carbs should be directed.
Trouble is, after its been produced, insulin stays in your body for 5 hours! If you eat breakfast at 8am, then at lunch just 4 hours later you have a piece of cake...that sugar heads back towards your liver, creating another insulin spike. The pancreas then sends out more insulin, spiking it higher after each meal.
And what happens when you've got too much insulin in your system, kids? Insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity (increased fat storage).
Since insulin prevents the sugar from being absorbed by your cells (because you have too much of it in you), it turns into fat.
Foods rich in fiber practice the 'buddy system' and will break down more slowly in your system, not giving you the insulin spike we spoke of earlier. Because they're absorbed gradually, your body can better process them (and you feel fuller longer to boot!)
For example, a large salad, even when coupled with a cream-based dressing like Ranch or Thousand Island, will not increase your blood sugar.
However, many grains, like rice, barley, rye, and corn can increase your blood sugar, even though they are 'complex carbohydrates' (those 'buddy system' carbs noted earlier).
This can happen if a large serving is eaten quickly without having oils or proteins in your meal. You knew there was a reason your mother always told you to chew your food slowly!
The Lighter Side of Fiber
So far, we've seen the damage your body can undergo via a lack of fiber. And as if battling obesity wasn't a big enough reason (pun intended) - here are some more benefits to consuming the right amount of fiber!
Benefit #1 - Lower Risk of Heart Disease: Mentioned earlier in this article, fiber lowers cholesterol. It's been well documented that a buildup of cholesterol in the coronary arteries leads to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). They become hard and narrow. Should they become blocked altogether, this produces a heart attack.
In fact, in a Harvard study of over 40,000 male health professionals, researchers found that a high total dietary fiber intake was linked to a 40 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, compared to a low fiber intake.
Benefit #2 - Decreased risk for Type 2 Diabetes: Remember our trip down Insulin Lane earlier? Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes. When the body develops the insulin resistance we previously discussed, type 2 diabetes is the result.
When it comes to factors that increase the risk of developing diabetes, a diet low in cereal fiber and rich in high-glycemic-index foods (which cause big spikes in blood sugar) seems particularly bad.
One Harvard study of more than 700,000 men and women, found that eating an extra 2 servings of whole grains a day decreased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 21 percent. (Source: Harvard School of Public Health)
Benefit #3 - Lower Risk of Diverticular Disease: Betcha didn't even know you were at risk on this one!
Typically an inflammation of the intestine, studies show that this disease occurs in one-third of all those over age 45 and in two-thirds of those over age 85. (Source: Harvard School of Public Health)
Among male health professionals in a long-term follow-up study, eating dietary fiber, particularly insoluble fiber, was associated with about a 40 percent lower risk of diverticular disease.
Benefit #4 - Go More Often: Duh! Probably the most well-known benefit of fiber is that it relieves constipation! The good news is that your GI (gastrointestinal) tract is highly sensitive to dietary fiber and if you're backed up, fiber will put the steam back in your locomotive!
If you're truly having difficulty? Go for wheat or oat bran. It's been found to be more effective than fruits and veggies.
But don't go 'whole hog' on fiber! There are distinct disadvantages to taking in too much, too soon!
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Just as with sweets and chocolates, you gotta think 'moderation' here. There are actual consequences for bulking up on fiber too quickly!
1. Constipation - eating the right amount of foods rich in fiber can help with any 'traffic jams' in the bathroom. However, fiber absorbs water. Eating too much fiber without drinking plenty of water can have the opposite of its intended effect! Don't forget your eight to ten 8oz glasses of water a day in addition to slowly increasing your fiber intake!
2. Gas - increased flatulence is a very common side effect of high-fiber diet. Once the fiber hits your colon, bacteria begin to chow down, doing what they can to digest it - creating bloating and gas as a byproduct. Sadly, this occurs regardless of the type of fiber you're eating, so be sure to grab a little Beano before you chow down on your next bowl of oatmeal!
3. Deprivation of good cholesterol - while it is true that high fiber diet is effective in lowering cholesterol, not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, according to research, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is effective in protecting the heart and brain. Eating more than the recommended daily amount of fiber may reduce both types of cholesterol from the blood.
Foods rich in fiber are not bad, rather healthful. However, too much of anything good can be bad.
Yum - Paper Sandwich!Fiber doesn't have to taste like cardboard! There are some really yummy options to getting the proper amount of fiber your body needs to perform like the well-oiled machine you know it can be!
1. Go with whole fruit instead of juice. Whole apples and whole oranges are packed with a lot more fiber and a lot fewer calories than their liquid counterparts.
2. Break the fast with fruit. Get off to a great start by adding fruit, like berries or melon, to your breakfast every day.
3. Check the label for fiber-filled whole grains. Choose foods that list whole grains (like whole wheat or whole oats) as a first ingredient. Bread, cereal, crackers and other grain foods should have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Read "Health Gains from Whole Grains" for a list of whole grains and their benefits.
4. Eat more beans. It's easy to forget about beans, but they're a great tasting, cheap source of fiber, good carbs, protein, and other important nutrients.
5. Try a new dish. Test out international recipes that use whole grains, like tabouli or whole wheat wheat pasta, or beans, like Indian dahls.
Armed with the proper knowledge (and a better understanding of WHY and HOW fiber works so well) you can now make more informed decisions on giving your body the nutrients, minerals, and supplements it needs to run at your pace!