Fiber is a carbohydrate that serves the role of a workhorse in the body.
Per an article published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, adequate dietary fiber consumption is linked to a host of health benefits. These include reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, hypertension, certain gastrointestinal disorders, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Of course, this superfood is known for regulating the activity of sugars in the body, which helps to control hunger and blood sugar.
So far, so good. Except for the fact that we’re not eating nearly enough of it. In fact, according to the same article, around 95 percent of us don’t get enough fiber in our diet. Indeed, most of us aren’t even close.
In this article, we’ll discuss what fiber is, its importance, recent studies, and what you can do to get more fiber.
What is dietary fiber?
Fiber is considered a superfood by many health experts – and for good reason. Yes, it is essential for maintaining proper digestion and preventing constipation. But fiber contributes to better health in a number of other ways, too.
Proper intake reduces the likelihood of acquiring life-long diseases and helps keep our blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight at healthy levels. Most superfoods (e.g. avocados) are high in fiber too. We’ll get into this in a bit more detail later.
Dietary fiber is a plant-derived nutrient from the carbohydrate family. However, fiber is not your usual carb. Insoluble fiber, for example, cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and therefore remains almost wholly unbroken during its journey throughout the intestinal tract. Insoluble fiber is available through certain carbs or plant-based foods like brown rice, carrots, cucumbers, legumes, tomatoes, whole grain bread, whole grain couscous, and others.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water; its main functions are to lower blood cholesterol and reduce glucose levels. Good sources of soluble fiber include apples, barley, beans, blueberries, citrus fruits, dried beans, oats, oat bran, peas, potatoes, and strawberries. The skin of fruits and vegetables is also an excellent potential source of soluble fiber.
Why aren’t we eating dietary fiber?
Let’s perform a thought experiment, shall we? Over the past 20 or so years, how many times have you heard something – maybe in the news, from a diet book, or a friend – about carbs or fat? Sugar? Dairy? Gluten? These things seem to dominate the narrative whenever diet is being discussed.
Now, how often do you hear the word fiber?
Not nearly as often – and this is not an accident. The talking heads that have tried to talk us into buying into the latest diet program rarely mention fiber, either. The reason is simple: fiber doesn’t sell. You’re more likely to get a bunch of people to buy your crappy diet product by mentioning buzzwords like fat, carbs, cholesterol, sugar, and so on.
But to be fair, America’s fiber deficiency isn’t all the fault of the “health and wellness” industry. Some of us haven’t directed the necessary attention and effort into understanding what our body needs to be healthy. Health experts believe that laypeople fall short in understanding what foods provide good sources of fiber. Many people also hold misperceptions about the recommended amount of fiber one needs. Dietary trends such as low-carbohydrate and gluten-free diets may also be contributing to widespread fiber deficiency.
But make no mistake about it – fiber is essential to not just a healthy weight, but a healthy body, period.
Fiber, the lifesaver
It is not hyperbole to say that regular consumption of this superfood saves millions of lives. Per a meta-analysis of 185 prospective studies and 58 clinical trials published in the journal The Lancet, there is a 15 to 30 percent lower mortality rate from conditions like colorectal cancer, coronary heart disease, and type 2 diabetes “when comparing higher with lower intakes of dietary (fiber).”
Let’s break down the findings of researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health about the effects of fiber on medical conditions, some severe.
A 2016 Harvard study published in the journal Pediatrics found that women who ate adequate fiber in early adulthood had significantly lower breast cancer risk than other women. Moreover, both soluble and insoluble fiber reduces the chances of breast cancer.
Although this particular study measures the effects of fiber consumption from childhood and early adolescence and the development of cancer, you will only gain from eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. The anti-cancer benefits of fiber are well documented and understood, spanning across all age groups.
Not being able to pass stools regularly or fully is the most frequently cited gastrointestinal complaint in the U.S. Proper fiber intake appears to prevent and relieve constipation. Along with that, it prevents hemorrhoids. No wonder it’s considered a superfood.
Fiber from bran is shown more effective at relieving constipation symptoms than fruits and vegetables. Foods like oat and wheat bran are probably the best bet. Just make sure to increase fluid intake when increasing fiber levels, as the nutrient absorbs water through the digestive tract.
Diverticular disease, or diverticulitis, is one of the most widespread age-related health disorders in the West. Adequate fiber intake may reduce the risk of diverticulitis by up to 40 percent.
While any type of dietary fiber may help prevent diverticular disease, the insoluble variety may be more effective.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, taking about one in every four lives. In a long-term study of over 40,000 participants, Harvard researchers found that a high intake of total dietary fiber reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by as much as 40 percent. Multiple studies seem to confirm this conclusion.