Maybe it’s time to buy an extra serving of greens, add berries to your breakfast, or ditch the blender. Most Americans don’t get enough fiber. As in, less than 5%. We’re missing a lot (and experts fear). While this is shocking, it’s not entirely surprising. After all, the Standard American Diet has practically no fiber. We obsess over carbs and protein, yet we overlook the small but powerful impact of fiber. And therefore, we are overeating but undernourished. Without further ado, let’s break down what fiber is, how to get it, and the benefits of a high-fiber diet.
Featured image of Joann Pai.
What is fiber?
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate. It consists of a variety of plant-based substances (polysaccharides, pectin, guar gum, etc.) that cannot be digested by the body. However most of Carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fiber being a foreign element. Instead, fiber passes through the body undigested. It comes for the ride — but this is a good thing! The fact that it is not digested is precisely why it is so important. Fiber helps minimize constipation, regulate hunger, keep blood sugar levels steady, slow glucose absorption, promote heart health, and more. The FDA has a helpful, easy-to-digest guide to fiber here.
Two types of fiber, two different roles
There are two types of fiber. Both are necessary, but each plays a different role in our health:
Fiber is soluble in water. Soluble fiber is derived from gums and pectin. It turns into a thick, viscous gel when dissolved in water. This gel helps to lower cholesterol levels, especially LDL. Soluble fiber also helps lower blood sugar levels. It can be found in chia seeds, beans, fruits, carrots, oats, etc.
Fiber does not dissolve in water. Insoluble fiber helps prevent constipation and keeps things moving. Insoluble fiber is found in whole wheat flour, cauliflower, almonds, and potatoes.
Source of fiber
Fiber is mainly found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes. As a general rule: whole foods — rich in color — are usually high in fiber. Just another reason to eat rainbows! Cooked or raw produce is an incredible source of fiber. However, studies show that to get the most out of your fiber, eat as much raw (or almost raw) vegetables as possible. Cooking vegetables, boiling, roasting, etc., can reduce fiber by almost half. This is very helpful if you are new to eating fiber! In the end, the biggest hit to your nutritional intake is going to be mostly raw veggies. By trial and error, you will find what works best for your body.
High-fiber foods versus low-fiber foods
Before diving into the benefits of a high-fiber diet, let’s make a distinction between high-fiber and low-fiber foods. For context, here’s a short list of high-fiber foods, with their approximate fiber content:
- One cup of edamame: 18 grams
- One cup of lentils: 16 grams
- One cup of black beans: 15 grams
- One cup of garbanzo beans: 12 grams
- Two tablespoons of chia seeds: 10 grams
- One cup of raspberries: 8 grams
- Half cup of raw pistachios: 7 grams
- One persimmon: 6 grams
- One cup of broccoli: 5 grams
- Half cup butter: 5 grams
On the contrary, these are low fiber foods
- Refined carbohydrates, like white flour pancakes, bagels, bread, pasta, and white rice.
- Animal proteins.
- Dairy products.
- Low-fiber packaged goods, like cereal, chips, crackers, and granola bars.
- Most desserts, like traditional cookies, donuts and cakes.
- Soft drinks and other sugary drinks.
Why don’t Americans get enough fiber?
When talking about the pitfalls of the American diet, we tend to focus on processed sugar, table salt, and calories without nutrients. So let’s skip talking about fiber. Its absence has some nuance, but it is mainly related to what we are exposed to. The traditional American diet lacks fiber. Beyond that, what we offer at gas stations and fast food outlets doesn’t make it any easier. We have put ourselves in the shabby void.
Centuries ago, it was not so. Humans have traditionally evolved to eat fiber – a lot of it. Long before we learned to domesticate animals, we relied primarily on fiber-rich fruits, roots, shoots, nuts, and seeds.
How much fiber do you need each day?
It’s for debate. However, growing research suggests that official recommendations (under 30 grams/day) may be lower than we actually need for optimal health. What we really need is probably 50 grams/day (or more). Currently, the average American consumes 10-15 grams of fiber per day – nowhere near. Let these statistics allow you to add more fiber, index.
Can low fiber diets cause disease?
It’s correct. A lack of fiber can cause more than just constipation. In fact, it can cause a host of unwanted diseases (and even cancer). A lack of fiber can mean an unhealthy digestive system, which can lead to both short- and long-term health complications. Low-fiber diets have been linked to everything from colon cancer to unhealthy cholesterol levels, a suppressed immune system and obesity.
How to slowly eat more fiber
No need to completely detox—Unless that tells you, of course! Instead, consider the concept of “crowded concentration”. The more fiber-rich ingredients you add to your plate, the more processed, nutrient-free foods you will naturally eliminate.
Take advantage of meal preparation.
To start the meal, prepare more plant-based foods. You’ll be more likely to reach for foods with fiber when they’re ready (and easy to see). Check out these fiber-rich recipes for more details.
Instead of adding fiber-rich foods all at once, add 1-2 servings per day to your regular diet. Do this for a week, let your body adjust, then add another serving the following week.
Consider simple swaps.
For example, your regular cereal bowl with high-fiber cereal, white pasta for 100% whole-wheat pasta, berries instead of bananas, and high-fiber protein bars instead of regular take-out snacks usually yours.
Food is fun! Enjoy an alternative weekend breakfast, like this beautiful (and functional) breakfast table. Eat more fiber without having to grind wheat bran.
Benefits of a high-fiber diet
They are a dozen. Eating plenty of fiber helps normalize bowel movements, maintain gut health (such as reducing the risk of hemorrhoids), lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar, aid in achieving a healthy weight, and longevity.
- Helps control blood sugar. In people with diabetes, fiber — especially soluble fiber — can slow sugar absorption and help improve blood sugar levels. A healthy diet that includes insoluble fiber may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Assists in achieving a healthy weight. High-fiber foods tend to stay full longer than low-fiber foods, so you can eat less and stay full longer. And foods high in fiber tend to last longer and are less “energy dense,” meaning they have fewer calories for the same amount of food.
- Help you live longer. Studies show that increasing the amount of fiber in your diet – especially cereal fiber – is associated with a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and all cancers.
Relieves Chronic Constipation
According to this article, a high-fiber diet was significantly more effective than a placebo in relieving chronic constipation. In other words: fiber keeps things moving. And who doesn’t want regular? The fiber in foods softens your stool, making it easier to pass.
We have trillions of bacteria living in — and around — the human digestive tract. They need fiber! Bacteria eat it. When there’s no fiber to eat, some forms of gut bacteria move to the lining that protects the colon, which isn’t good. Basically, fiber helps control inflammatory cells, improving the overall health of the gut.
Studies have found that a diet high in fiber can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. In addition to helping prevent other diseases, fiber is key to heart health. Soluble fiber may aid in lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol levels. Studies have also shown that foods high in fiber may have other benefits on heart health, such as lowering blood pressure and inflammation.
Healthier body weight
Fiber promotes satiety more effectively than low-fiber and/or processed foods. In turn, it’s been shown in research to aid weight loss. This is mutually beneficial, as increasing fiber intake encourages the swapping of less healthy foods for natural, plant-based alternatives. While weight loss is not the primary goal of a high-fiber diet, most people will eventually lose a small (or moderate) amount of weight after increasing their fiber consumption.
Improve insulin sensitivity
Helps prevent heart disease, fiber helps prevent insulin resistance. It is estimated that 88% of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. Fiber can reverse these statistics greatly. Time and again, fiber has been shown to effectively keep blood sugar levels lower throughout the day. In essence, fiber “reduces” sugars, forcing them to take longer to be absorbed into the bloodstream.