“Eat more fiber” is right up there with the usual health advice like drink more water, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. While most are aware that fiber is good for the body, many don’t necessarily understand how it works—and that can keep people from taking the eat-more-fiber advice to heart.
Read on to find out what fiber is, the health benefits of a high-fiber diet, and how you can get more of it every day.
Fiber is the stuff in plant-derived foods that cannot be digested by the body. Whenever you eat fruits, vegetables, and grains, your body strips away all the nutrients for use; the remnants pass through the body and are eliminated through bowel movement.
There are two types of fiber found in food: soluble and insoluble. Soluble, as its name indicates, dissolves in water. If you’ve ever taken a fiber supplement, you’ve probably seen what it does to water when it’s added: The water turns into a gel-like substance when not consumed immediately. It has the same effect inside the body. Because of this, the soluble fiber is able to slow down digestion, which allows the body to better absorb nutrients as well as helps you feel full for longer.
Insoluble fiber, meanwhile, gives bulk to stool, allowing waste to pass through the system more efficiently. This speeds things up and keeps you from experiencing digestive problems like constipation.
Fiber and Gut Health
The primary benefit of fiber is that it improves gut health. Aside from keeping your bowel movements regular, it also keeps other tummy problems at bay. A 2009 review entitled “Health Benefits of Dietary Fiber” enumerates some of the gastrointestinal disorders that fiber can help manage: gastroesophageal reflux disease, duodenal ulcer, diverticulitis, constipation, and hemorrhoids. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that increased fiber intake may reduce the risk of colon cancer.
In recent years, more and more attention has been given to the gut microbiome, or the ecosystem of bacteria in the digestive system. Keeping good bacteria in our tummies happy is essential for good health. (The gut microbiome is closely linked with the immune system, for one, so the benefits are far-reaching.) A 2017 study suggests that fiber helps maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria—good bacteria feed off fiber, which allows them to thrive and prevent inflammation.
Other Health Benefits of Fiber
Because all the systems in our bodies are intricately connected and work together, the benefits of a high-fiber diet go beyond just your gut.
Lowers cholesterol. Remember how soluble fiber works, gathering things that the body cannot use? Harvard Health Publishing states that soluble fiber also “binds cholesterol and its precursors in the digestive system and drags them out of the body before they get into circulation.” Having lower cholesterol means a lower risk of heart disease.
Lowers risk of diabetes. Got a sweet tooth? Eating lots of fiber can help slow down the absorption of sugar, causing fewer spikes in blood sugar and ultimately lowering the risk of diabetes. This isn’t a license to go overboard with the sugar but it’s good to know that fiber adds an extra layer of protection!
Prevents kidney stones and gallstones. Insulin spikes can lead to the development of kidney stones and gallstones. Because fiber slows down the absorption of sugar, it can likewise prevent the formation of these stones.
May be good for skin. A nutrition expert cited by Forbes says that some types of fiber can latch on to and help eliminate yeast and fungus that would otherwise find their way out through the skin, causing rashes and other skin problems.
How to Increase Your Fiber Intake
Fruits, vegetables, and grains are foods with high fiber. You can incorporate these into your diet throughout the day: Start your day with a bowl of oatmeal or cereal (as long as it isn’t the sugary kind), which are both excellent sources of fiber. (Try Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats and Bob’s Red Mill Cereal, available at Healthy Options.)
For added fiber, top with some fruit. Then include lots of vegetables during lunch and dinner. You can also try replacing rice with beans or lentils for one of your meals. When the mid-morning or afternoon hunger pangs set in, reach for an apple (better with the skin on) or other fiber-rich fruit.
You might initially feel bloated when you first introduce more fiber into your diet but that’s just your body adjusting. Pretty soon, your system will even out and you’ll reap the benefits of a high-fiber diet.