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Welcome to January. The holidays and their potential for overindulgence are over. It is a new year and a fresh start. Traditionally, this is a time for change; a time for taking stock of where we are and how we can improve ourselves. That’s what New Year’s resolutions are all about. Resolutions that we will keep or break, depending on how realistic we are about what we resolve. Maybe you want to be healthier? Lose weight? Detoxify? Lower your cholesterol? Become rich and famous? You can do it all (except for maybe the last two), and more, just by resolving to eat more fiber.
That doesn’t mean cutting up your old t-shirt and adding it to soup. I’m talking about dietary fiber, which is only found in plant foods. Our bodies cannot digest fiber because we don’t have the proper enzymes (or number of stomachs) for it. That also means fiber has no calories. There are two kinds of food fiber, soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber comes from parts of the plant that give it structure, like their cell walls, and includes cellulose and hemicellulose. Soluble fiber, like gums and pectins, comes from the materials inside the cells that the plant uses to store water. All plant foods contain both kinds of fiber, but some have more soluble fiber and others have more insoluble.
Fiber is best known for adding bulk or roughage to our diet, which promotes regular elimination and relieves constipation.
If you do not want to read more detail about the body’s natural elimination process (also known as “pooping”), skip the next paragraph. If you are a parent of, or regularly care for pre-potty-trained children, disregard this warning. We now return to our regularly scheduled article.
After the small intestine digests and absorbs all of the nutrients from our food, the leftover waste is moved on to the colon, the last five feet of our large intestine. The colon removes excess water from the stool before it is eliminated. Insoluble fiber helps this process by mixing with the stool and absorbing liquid, forming a soft, bulky stool that is easy for the colon to move out. When there is not enough fiber in our diet, it takes longer for the stool to be eliminated, and we can even become constipated. The longer it takes for our bodies to get rid of waste, the more likely it is for the body to re-absorb toxins from it. Over the long term, delayed and difficult elimination can also lead to other health problems like inflammation and infection of the intestinal lining, hemorrhoids, tears and fissures, hernias, varicose veins, and maybe even colorectal cancer.
A high fiber diet can also have other benefits. Fiber can slow down the emptying of food from the stomach, and may make it more difficult for our bodies to absorb fat. Insoluble fiber can help with weight loss and control because it fills us up without adding calories. Soluble fiber can help regulate blood sugar levels, which can help manage or even prevent type 2 (non-insulin dependent) diabetes. Blood sugar stabilization also helps us by giving us a long, steady dose of energy rather than an intense spike followed by a tiring crash.
One of soluble fiber’s most important benefits is its ability to reduce cholesterol in the body. Cholesterol is removed from the body when the liver converts cholesterol into bile acids. Soluble fiber binds to these bile acids in the intestines, and they are excreted from the body. The liver then creates more bile acids from cholesterol, removing more cholesterol from the blood, and reducing cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber may also change LDL (low-density lipoprotein) from more dangerous small and dense particles to relatively safer large and less dense particles. Both of these changes can reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack.
The only sources of fiber are plant foods, but there are some that are better than others. Here is a list of some of the best food sources for fiber.
1. Dried beans, peas, and other legumes. This includes baked beans, kidney beans, split peas, dried limas, garbanzos, pinto beans and black beans.
2. Bran cereals.
3. Fresh or frozen lima beans.
4. Fresh or frozen green peas.
5. Dried fruit, especially figs, apricots and dates.
6. Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.
7. Sweet corn, whether on the cob or cut off in kernels.
8. Whole-wheat and other whole-grain cereal products. Rye, oats, buckwheat and stone-ground cornmeal are all high in fiber. Bread, pastas, pizzas, pancakes and muffins made with whole-grain flours.
9. Broccoli—very high in fiber!
10. Baked potato with the skin. (The skin, when crisp, is the best part for fiber.) Mashed and boiled potatoes are good, too, but not french fries, which contain a high
percentage of fat.
11. Green snap beans, pole beans, and
broad beans. (These are packaged frozen as Italian beans; in Europe they are known as haricot or french beans.)
12. Plums, pears, and apples. The skin is edible, and are all high in pectin.
13. Raisins and prunes. Not as high on the list as other dried fruits (see #5) but very valuable.
14. Greens. Including spinach, beet greens, kale, collards, swiss chard and turnip greens.
15. Nuts, especially almonds, Brazil nuts, peanuts, and walnuts. (Consume these sparingly, because of their high fat content.)
19. Coconut (dried or fresh).
20. Brussels sprouts.
This list is from Bowel Function and Dietary Fiber by Warren Enker, MD.
The “average” American eats only 10-15 grams of fiber daily. That’s only one-third to one-half of the 25-30 grams most experts recommend. Some even suggest higher amounts like 40 or 50 grams per day. It is important to remember to increase your fiber intake slowly over a period of three or four weeks.
Again, skip the next paragraph if you are feeling squeamish.
The reason to increase fiber intake slowly is that it takes the bacteria in our intestines a while to adjust to having more fiber around. If you rush it, you could experience abdominal problems like gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. If you think you are already getting enough fiber, a good test is to do a stool check: After a bowel movement, your stool should float. If not, you could use more fiber. Enough fiber should also speed up the whole process, and eliminate straining, so if you are not having easy bowel “actions” (as the British call them), you may also need more fiber.
As you can see from the list above, the best sources for fiber are whole foods, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, which are also very rich in nutrients other than fiber. Because of this, food is usually a better fiber source than supplements. Don’t limit yourself to foods from the list, though. They are higher fiber foods, but all plant foods have fiber, so it’s hard to make a bad choice when you stick to whole or minimally processed foods. One last tip: If you are not already drinking 8-10 glasses of water a day, please increase your water intake along with the fiber. Fiber absorbs water, and if you increase fiber without a corresponding increase in water, you could be in worse shape than before.
Eating enough fiber can have tremendous benefits, and eliminate a lot of health problems, so happy New Year, and happy fiber eating. Who knows, it just might help make you rich and famous too!