5 Critical Health Benefits of Fiber (Beyond Regularity)
Nutrition Real Food Recipes
When you think of dietary fiber…
I bet you think of two things:
#1: processed diet and “health” food products like breakfast bars and cereals that scream “LOADED WITH FIBER” on the box (and typically aren’t very tasty)
#2: yes, just that — a satisfying, solid, dependable number #2
And while fiber certainly does keep us regular and feeling full (which is why it’s added to so many diet and “health” food-like products), there are a number of other critical benefits of fiber.
Before we get into all that…
Let’s talk a bit about what fiber is and how much we should be consuming.
Fiber is the roughage or indigestible part of plant foods. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble fiber.
- Soluble fiber attracts water — it’s water-soluble, hence the name “soluble fiber” — and turns to gel during digestion. Soluble fiber helps to slow the passage of food through the digestive tract.
- Insoluble fiber cannot be dissolved in water. It adds bulk to the stool and acts as a natural stool softener, helping food pass more easily through the stomach and intestines.
But as with most nutrients, the average American eats far less fiber than she should: only 15 grams of fiber per day. According to the Institute of Medicine, women should be consuming 25 grams of fiber per day and men 38. Other sources suggest we should be consuming even more — according to Dr. Sara Gottfried, MD (author of The Hormone Cure), women should be consuming 30-40 grams a of fiber daily.
So why are we consuming so much less fiber than we ought to? Well fiber is most abundant in whole foods and most people just don’t eat many whole foods! Instead, they eat highly processed food-like products:
- 61% of the food Americans buy is highly processed
- In 2011, 36% of adolescents and 38% of adults said they ate fruit less than once a day, while 38% of adolescents and 23% of adults said they ate vegetables less than once a day
- More than three-quarters of Americans’ calories came from highly and moderately processed foods and drinks in 2012
These statistics are extremely alarming for SO many reasons. But the point to be made here is that most Americans aren’t consuming foods naturally high in fiber.
This is a shame considering the many health benefits of fiber…
5 Critical Health Benefits of Fiber:
1. Fiber aids your body’s natural detoxification processes
Bowel movements are actually one of the body’s main detoxification routes, and stool is a dumping ground for toxins and waste — the liver eliminates toxins via bile, which is released into the small intestine to emulsify and absorb fat. Well as we know, fiber keeps us regular, which means it prevents the absorption of these chemicals back into the body (as can happen with constipation).
Fiber also helps to slough off the waste that can sometimes linger on the walls of the intestines, again preventing toxins from being reabsorbed into the body.
2. Fiber helps balance hormones
[This is actually the reason why I’ve been on such a fiber kick recently. For the past year, I’ve been experiencing hormonal imbalances, specifically estrogen dominance that is causing dysmenorrhea (which I affectionately call “monster periods”).]
Your liver plays a big role in hormone balance since it is responsible for detoxifying used and excess hormones. As with other toxins, these hormones are detoxed via the bile. Not only does fiber keep things moving along, but it also binds to these hormones, preventing them from being reabsorbed even if transit time is slower.
This may sound so simple but the impact is very profound! The endocrine system is complex but delicate — when one hormone is thrown off balance, it can have a cascade effect on the other hormones as well as other systems of the body.
3. Fiber helps maintain a healthy gut microbiome
Soluble fiber is a prebiotic: it is food for your good gut bacteria. Good gut bacteria and a balanced microbiome (when the good and bad bacteria are living together in harmony) is SO important not only for digestion but for the immune system as well, since 80% of the immune system is in the gut.
Gut health (or lack thereof) has also been linked to ADHD, anxiety, depression, autoimmune diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and obesity, so nourishing your gut microbiome should be a big component of your nutritional and dietary protocol.
4. Fiber helps balance blood sugar levels
Erratic blood sugar levels wreak havoc on the body — it can throw off hormones, drain you of energy, slow your metabolism, create chronic inflammation, and more.
Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar and help balance blood sugar levels. For this reason, it’s widely believed that a diet high in fiber may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
And since fiber is not broken down and digested, it (in and of itself) has no effect on blood sugar levels. The confusing thing is: on food nutrition labels, fiber is listed under total carbohydrate. Since carbohydrates have the biggest impact on blood sugar levels, it could easily be wrongly assumed that fiber would also impact blood sugar levels. But really it’s the exact opposite.
5. Fiber decreases inflammation
Soluble fiber has been shown to increase the production of an anti-inflammatory protein called interleukin-4, which stimulates the body’s anti-inflammation and infection-fighting T-cells. According to Gregory Freund, M.D. of the University of Illinois, “Soluble fiber changes immune cells from being pro-inflammatory warrior cells to anti-inflammatory peacekeeper cells” as a result of the T-cell stimulation. Other studies have found that people who eat diets high in fiber have lower C-reactive protein (CRP) levels in their blood. CRP is a marker of inflammation that’s been linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes.
From what I’ve read, I can’t determine if fiber has inherent anti-inflammatory properties or if the effects are a result of the aforementioned benefits. Either way, it’s important to note and a wonderful benefit!
What do you think? Time to up your fiber game?
As with all nutrients, it’s best to get fiber from a real food diet — be sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (especially with the skins on), as well as properly-prepared (I suggest soaking and spouting) nuts, seeds, beans, and grains if they are well-tolerated.
If you’re going to supplement, do so with a whole food source like organic psyllium husk, flax seeds (be sure to buy the whole seeds and grind them just before eating to preserve the delicate omega-3 fatty acids), or hemp protein/fiber (this is one of my favorite superfood smoothie add-ins).
And while increasing your fiber intake, do so gradually — adding fiber too quickly can create gas, bloating, and diarrhea (never fun!). Try adding 5 grams each week until you reach your optimal level.
|FOOD||SOLUBLE FIBER (g)||INSOLUBLE FIBER (g)||TOTAL FIBER (g)|
|Artichoke, medium, cooked||4.7||1.8||6.5|
|Green plantain, 100g||5.8||0.2||6|
|Spinach, cooked, 1 cup||1.1||4.3||5.4|
|Turnip, cooked, 1/2 cup||1.7||3.1||4.8|
|Parsnips, cooked, 1 cup||0.4||4||4.4|
|Okra, cooked, 1/2 cup||1||3.1||4|
|Green peas, cooked, 2/3 cup||0.6||3.3||3.9|
|Sweet potatoes, 1/2 cup||1.4||2.4||3.8|
|Brussels sprouts, 1/2 cup||2||1.3||3.3|
|Squash, winter, cooked||1.9||1.4||3.3|
|Potato with skin, medium||1.2||1.7||2.9|
|Asparagus, cooked, 1/2 cup||1.7||1.1||2.8|
|Zucchini, cooked, 1/2 cup||1.1||1.4||2.5|
|Squash, summer, cooked, 1/2 cup||1.1||1.2||2.3|
|Onions, cooked, 1/2 cup cooked||1.2||0.8||2|
|Carrots, cooked, 1/2 cup||1.1||0.9||2|
|Cabbage, green, cooked, 1/2 cup||0.8||1||1.8|
|Figs, 3 small||2.3||3||5.3|
|Raspberries, 1/2 cup||0.4||3.8||4.2|
|Blackberries, 1/2 cup||3.1||0.7||3.8|
|Apple, with skin||1||2.7||3.7|
|Apricots, fresh, 4 medium||1.8||1.7||3.5|
|Mango, fresh, 1/2 small||1.7||1.2||2.9|
|Pear, 1 small||1.1||1.8||2.9|
|Banana, 7 inch||0.7||2.1||2.8|
|Strawberries, 3/4 cup||0.9||1.5||2.4|
|Prunes, dried, 3 medium||1||0.7||1.7|
Nuts and Seeds*
|Chia Seeds, 1 cup||21||59||80|
|Flax Seeds, 1 cup||13.8||11.7||22.5|
|Almonds, 1 cup||1.6||14.3||15.9|
|Sunflower Seeds, 1 cup||2.7||10.7||13.4|
|Peanuts, 1 cup||2.7||10.5||13.2|
|Sesame Seeds, 1 cup||2.9||8.8||11.7|
|Pumpkin Seeds, 1 cup||2.4||6.4||8.8|
|Pecans, 1 cup||1.6||6.6||8.2|
|Walnuts, 1 cup||1.8||4||5.8|
|Lentils, cooked, 1/2 cup||1||7||8|
|Pinto beans, cooked, 1/2 cup||1.9||5.5||7.4|
|Chick peas, cooked, 1/2 cup||1.3||4.9||6.2|
|Black beans, cooked, 1/2 cup||2.4||3.7||6.1|
|Kidney beans, cooked, 1/2 cup||2.9||2.9||5.8|
|White beans, cooked, 1/2 cup||0.4||3.8||4.2|
|Amaranth, dry, 1 cup||9.4||20.2||29.6|
|Quinoa, cooked, 1cup||1.2||8.1||9.3|
|Psyllium husk, 10g||7.1||0.9||8|
|Barley, cooked, 1/2 cup||0.9||3.3||4.2|
|Wheat germ, 3 tbsp||0.7||3.2||3.9|
|Oatmeal, 1 cup||1.8||2||3.8|
|Millet, cooked, 1/2 cup||0.6||2.7||3.3|
|Rolled oats, cooked, 3/4 cup||1.3||1.7||3|
|Bulgur, cooked, 1/2 cup||0.5||2.4||2.9|
|White rice, cooked, 1 cup||0.3||2.6||2.9|
|Oatmeal, dry, 1/3 cup||1.4||1.3||2.7|
|Brown rice, coked, 1/2 cup||1.3||0||1.3|
*Due to the phytic acid in nuts, seeds, beans, and grains, I suggest soaking and sprouting before preparing
Well, first, I would like to start out with praise to you, Nadia, for putting your precious time and energy into this website full of amazing knowledge for others to use for themselves as well! I came across your website about 2 and a half years ago, and you were definitely an inspiration to me to be mindful of my health through all of my daily routines and not just in the kitchen. Thank you for that! Something I wanted to throw in, in reference to this article, is raw cacao. Raw cacao is a good source of fiber and has 28.5 grams of dietary fiber in 1 cup of raw cacao powder. One can also snack on cacao nibs as well. I believe you have already discussed how wonderful cacao is, so I will leave it at that. Thank you very much for the reminder about being mindful of our fiber intake!
Great article! I really liked the chart included that shows different foods and their amount of fiber :).
The one I use and link to in the post is a powder that I mix in water (usually with fermented greens) or add to smoothies. It really doesn’t taste like much.
Is the organic psyllium husk in “vitamin” or “pill” form? I’m wondering about the substance.
What a great post! I definitely need to consume more fiber, but I’ve been making an effort to try and eat avocado every since it has 10 grams per 1 cup. I was surprised you didn’t have it on the list. 🙂 Bookmarking this for later.
Love this! It’s so easy to forget all the other wonderful things fiber does for our bodies.
I don’t eat enough fiber. It is hard to eat all the right things to get fiber. I love artichokes and beets. I will have to start with them!
I have an unhealthy gut and some hormone balancing problems too, so I was super interested in your #2 point above. Thanks for the quality information and the helpful links!
Over the last year I have worked my tail off to add more veg to my day for more minerals but I never thought of the fiber benefits too – I didn’t realize they effect hormones etc so much! Thank you!
Oh congrats on the new addition to the family, Beth! Glad you found that helpful 🙂
So true – a balanced, real food diet is bound to be high in fiber as!
I am all about decreasing inflammation! Thanks!
Great info! I didn’t realize the role fiber plays in hormone detoxification. I’ll have to keep track of how much fiber I’m getting – as a relatively new and nursing mom, I have lots of hormones floating around!
This is a great post! I think people don;t realize just how abundant fiber can be if you actually eat a balanced real food diet. I have friends that just rely on OTC fiber powders and they wonder why they feel terrible! It all in the right foods! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Great post! Such a useful table you put together. 🙂