Fiber, also known as roughage, is the part of plant foods that our bodies can’t digest. You might think that this makes it useless and unnecessary for optimum health, but the opposite is true. In fact, fiber’s inability to be absorbed or used by the body is what makes it so important. Today we will be looking at why it is needed every day.
Most of us aren’t getting enough fiber
The Western diet typically contains less fiber than what we need. This is because almost all processed foods have close to zero fiber at all. Beneficial fiber is removed during the manufacturing process and other ingredients like sugar, fat, refined carbohydrates and plant oils that don’t contain any fiber are added. There are a variety of reasons why most processed foods don’t contain fiber:
1. Fiber decreases shelf live
Fiber is organic matter, like the stringy part of celery sticks or the fleshy part of carrots. Since these parts of plant foods are nutrient dense, they are loved by germs and bacteria. This makes them spoil easily. The longer a food can last on the shelf, the easier it is to distribute it and, therefore, the cheaper the product will be. Cheaper products outsell their expensive counterparts. Price is a major factor when it comes to food choices: Either when we are looking for a quick fix on our lunch break or when we are buying food for the house. This is one of the reasons why fiber-free foods have become such an integral part of modern culture.
2. Fiber makes a food less desirable
Our bodies have been wired to survive in an environment that is much harsher than the one that technology has allowed us to create. One of our innate survival mechanisms is to find foods that provide the most caloric value so that we have the energy needed to survive until our next meal. Now that food is available everywhere that we go, and we don’t need to work so hard to get it, our physiological makeup is at odds with our lifestyle.
You have been made to crave foods that give you the most nutritional value. Since fiber provides no nutritional value to your body, you will naturally choose foods that are high in protein, carbohydrates or fat instead, leaving you to save those foods for times when there is nothing else to eat. Since we no longer go through times when there is nothing else to eat, we end up eating too many of the wrong foods and our bodies store more calories than what they could ever use.
Health benefits of fiber
This is why you should be eating plenty of fiber every day:
1. Fiber improves gut function
Foods that are high in basic nutrients like carbohydrates, protein and fats are easily digested and emptied from the gut into the blood stream. Fiber, on the other hand, takes longer to digest and sits in the digestive tract until it is eliminated. During the extended period of time that it spends in the gut, your digestive system is hard at work trying to pull as much nutritional value from the food source as it can. The fact that fiber is harder to digest explains why cows have four stomachs: They need to get all of their nutrients from fiber-dense food. Although plain grass is full of vitamins and nutrients, our digestive systems weren’t meant to digest it. Natural foods like fruit and vegetables, however, are harder to digest for similar reasons.
This is almost like exercise for your digestive system. It encourages a healthy digestive function that needs to work hard to maximize nutrient delivery. For these reasons, foods that are rich in fiber stimulate digestive health. A weakened digestive system that has not adapted to putting extra work into extracting nutrients from food is more prone to digestive illnesses like diarrhea, constipation, cramps, deficiency in certain nutrients and sensitivity to foods that aren’t as easy on the gut. A hard working gut is a healthy gut.
2. Fiber supports healthy gut bacteria
Remember how we spoke about the fact that fiber rich foods are typically more expensive and less available because they spoil easily? The fact that bacteria love them is another reason why fibrous foods are so beneficial to gut health. Good gut bacteria need natural, plant-based fiber to look after your body. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between bad gut bacteria and good gut bacteria? The difference lies in what they eat. Bad bacteria and pathogens attack our healthy cells. Good bacteria and microorganisms attack food sources (like the indigestible fiber that we can’t digest) to turn them into usable nutrients that our bodies need. Good bacteria also balance out bad bacteria. Simply having too little of a beneficial strain of a certain bacteria will predispose you to bad bacteria. How do you make sure that you have enough of the good little soldiers to keep the baddies out? Eat enough fiber.
3. Fiber helps you poop
You need to eat a high enough portion of food that your body can’t digest in order to poop regularly. If too much of the food that you eat is absorbed into the body, toxic by-products will build up in the digestive tract (and may end up being stored throughout the rest of the body) until there is enough bulk to form a full bowel movement. When this happens, there are too many negative toxins to be released from a single bowel movement and a large portion of these toxins stay behind. This can cause a massive accumulation of negative compounds over time, and can lead to an array of digestive and toxicity related illnesses.
Have you ever noticed the difference in the quality of water between a river and a body of water that has no movement? Dams and ponds tend to become septic because there is no movement. Fresh water is not introduced and old water does not get washed away. In the same way, our digestive tracts need a good flow between input and output. If matter stays in the gut for too long, it can start to negatively affect digestive health – which spills over to the rest of the body. More than half of your entire immune system is found in the gut! The average person should pass two full bowel movements per day. Without enough fiber, your body won’t have enough matter to create poop – and you will start feeling like poop.
4. Fiber detoxifies your system
This is more of an extension on my previous point, but it needs its own mention because the passing of fecal matter is one of the four most significant ways that your body cleanses itself of unwanted products. Water-soluble toxins are released through urine, fat-soluble toxins are released though sweat, gaseous toxins are released though the respiratory system (which is why breathalyzers are accurate tools to measure alcohol toxicity), and bowel movements are needed to rid the body of physical toxic waste. These toxins include artificial colorants and flavorings that are so prevalent in processed foods, by-products created by gut bacteria and other bodily processes, excess nutrients like certain vitamins and minerals (too much of any micro nutrient can be deadly if your body loses the ability to eliminate it completely), and other unhealthy substances that we consume on a daily basis.
5. Fiber often accompanies nutrient dense food
Have you heard of the terms ‘nutrient dense’ and ‘empty calories’? This is basically an indication of how many micro nutrients a certain food has, compared to the macro nutrients (or calories) that a food has. Carbohydrates and protein carry 4 calories per gram. Fats carry 9 calories per gram. Foods that are high in these macro nutrients (and therefore contain calories that will be stored as fat if not used), but don’t have high levels of micro nutrients like vitamins, minerals, plant compounds, trace elements, antioxidants, polyphenols and other micro nutrients are regarded as empty calories because they make you fat without nourishing you. Foods that are high in fiber almost always have fewer calories while boasting more of these micro nutrients. This is why I recommend that all people eat at least five different fruit and vegetables every day. This ensures that you give your body the fiber and micro nutrients that it needs. Spinach, for example, is made up of more than 90% water, but has more micro nutrients than bread, gram for gram.
6. Fiber keeps you fuller for longer
We all know that excess fat has negative health consequences and that it can shorten life expectancy. There are two ways to lose weight: Increase caloric expenditure through exercise or decrease caloric consumption through diet. I, like many, would recommend both. Increased fiber consumption is one of the easiest ways to decrease caloric intake for a few reasons.
Firstly, most fibrous foods contain a large portion of water and fiber. Both of these nutrients have no caloric value and can’t be stored as fat. Secondly fiber stays in your gut for longer. This tells your gut that you are still full and don’t need to eat. Fibrous foods, therefore, help to decrease appetite and curb unhealthy tendencies to snack in between meals. If you want to decrease the amount of calories that you consume at every meal; try drinking a full glass of water before you eat, have a large portion of fiber before the rest of your meal, and eat slowly so that you get satiated sooner.
How do I get more fiber in my diet?
The easiest way to do this is to eat at least 5 different servings of fruit and vegetables every day. Personally, I like to make an entire meal of this (one of my meals is nothing but at least five fruit and veg). You can also substitute unhealthy meals for nutritious fruit and vegetables whenever your focus is diverted. When you focus on something else while eating, you don’t particularly enjoy or dislike the food that you are eating. This can help you to eat carrots or a few leaves of lettuce while you are working on the computer, or swap out popcorn for celery while watching your favorite movie.