Fiber plays a vital role in our body’s internal health and well-being. Helping solids to pass easily through the digestive tract, fiber also pulls toxins out of the intestines during the process of elimination. In addition, its bulkiness absorbs cholesterol molecules which can help reduce the risk of heart disease. And while we’re talking about bulk, the fiber found in foods allows us a feeling of satiety after meals, thereby reducing the feeling to graze and snack caused by hunger pangs. Unfortunately, many Americans are hardly reaching the 25 to 30 gram daily requirement for fiber intake; the average adult fiber intake is a mere 10 grams. The accompanying risk of constipation and higher cholesterol can predispose one to bowel disease including hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, colitis and colon cancer. (Liska, 2006)
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber moves slowly through the intestines which aides the body in ridding itself of excess cholesterol, improving glucose metabolism, and normalizing the pH balance of the intestines. Sources of soluble fiber include fruit, beans, barley, rice, flaxseed, and psyllium. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to waste products and allows for better intestinal motility, known as peristalsis, and improved bowel regularity. The most common sources of insoluble fibers are found in bran, vegetables, whole grains, and carrots. (Lipski, 2012) Reading labels for fiber content is important: most foods on today’s shelves are fiber-deficient. Choose foods high in fiber with at least 3-4 grams per serving. Apples, pears, natural orange juice with pulp, and other fruits with skins are excellent sources of fiber. Choose sprouted and whole grains and avoid anything processed, refined, or labeled “enriched”.
As we work towards increasing our dietary fiber intake, it is very important to stay hydrated. Failure to increase water intake while increasing fiber can lead to potentially painful conditions such as bowel impaction or bowel obstruction. However, heed caution: if you over-do it on the water, you may end up with diarrhea! A good rule of thumb is to take your weight and divide it in half to determine the amount of ounces you should drink daily, barring no history of renal disease or congestive heart failure. For example, a 150-pound individual could drink 75 ounces of liquid per day. The best liquid is fresh water, but herbal teas such as green and white tea are also excellent fluid sources. Some individuals experience gas as fiber increases. This is generally due in part to the microbiome of the gut adjusting to a new healthy environment; however if it persists, it may be of benefit to ask your physician to test you for low stomach acid, a condition known as hypochlorhydria, as this is one of the most common causes of gas and bloating. (Liska, 2006)
Taking steps to increase dietary fiber has many health benefits. Improved bowel regularity, decreased risk of cardiac disease, lowering cholesterol levels, and improved fullness after meals is just a few of fibers healthful side effects. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, bran, and legumes to ensure that you are getting at least 30 grams of fiber in your diet per day and don’t forget to drink liquids to keep the intestinal content bulky and soft. Your gut health and so much more depends on fiber.
Contributed by Terri Caunt R.N., B.S.N.
Lipski, E. (2012). Chapter 3: Digestion/Absorption: Replace and Repair. In E. Lipski, Digestive Wellness 4th Ed. (p. 40). New York: McGraw Hill.
(2006). Chapter 2: Carbohydrates. In D. Q. Liska, Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach Second Ed. (pp. 26-29). Gig Harbor: The Institute for Functional Medicine .