With the last few posts, I’ve focused on a lot of the “bad;” I want to get out of the scare-tactic category, today, and focus on one of the “goods.” The topic of the day is one of the best, if not the best, “good” out there: Fiber. As Americans, we definitely don’t get enough of the stuff with our fast food meals and processed food snacks (which are specifically designed to have less fiber to prolong shelf life). I aim to “learn you up” about the benefits of this strangely-digested material and about its nuances in general (Is that some kind of oxymoron…?).
Erf; so what is fiber?
Barring a huge scientific explanation (for your good as well as mine; heh), fiber is basically the part of natural foods (i.e. plants, starches) that one cannot properly digest. As with most dietary things, there’s more than one type; but good news!: Unlike, say cholesterol or carbohydrates, there aren’t “good” and “bad” types; both types are good! Didn’t I tell you I’d be sticking to the positive, today? Man, I feel warm inside! Anyway, the two types are called soluble and insoluble. What’s the difference? The belief of what each type of fiber does in one’s body is pretty well-defined, but scientists have concluded that the definitions are too simplistic, as benefits and attributes from one “established” type could include those thought to be exclusive of the opposite type. However, since I’m aiming to keep confusion down and simply get you to eat your fiber, I’ll stick with the trends and what you’re going to see on nutrition labels (I’ll add that while it is “simplistic,” it’s still a reasonable categorizing system, based on what they do in your body):
…is just that. It can dissolve in water and digest with the help of your colon. The benefits of its digestion are enormous. As seen here, the overall effect of numerous studies involving the intake of soluble fiber is a decrease in LDL (“bad” cholesterol), triglycerides, and no effect or a slightly positive effect on HDL (“good” cholesterol). The absorption rates of both calcium and zinc have also been shown to be improved through the intake of soluble fibers, so that’s wonderful news for your bones and immune system; especially if you’re ingesting a lot of sugars, as sugar degrades those nutrients in your system. On the subject of sugars, soluble fiber (in its partially-digested “gel” state) absorbs carbohydrates, like sugar. As it digests and moves through the intestines, it protects starches and carbohydrates (again, like sugar) from digestive enzymes. Thus, sugar is brought into the blood stream much more slowly and at intervals. This inhibits the spikes in blood sugar that are one of the underlying causes of type 2 diabetes. So, I offer an update to the old English saying: “Have your cake and eat it too!” where “it” is soluble fiber! Hey; it’s corny, but if it’ll help you remember to eat some kale or something before that slice of Bundt, let it be.
Downsides of soluble fiber
Welp, the most obvious downside is something I’m sure you figured out from the above picture, if you didn’t already discern it yourself from thinking about fiber-rich foods like beans. Yep: It’s farts; or, to be more proper: flatulence. Soluble fibers are mostly contained in legumes (beans/peas), fresh fruits like apples and bananas, and vegetables like cabbage; some of these are notorious for fart production. Also, though soluble fiber helps in the absorption of calcium and zinc, it is detrimental in the absorption processes of iron and some other nutrients. This is due to what I described above in its effect on sugars; the viscous gel prevents absorption as it moves through the digestive system. Soluble fiber has also been linked with both diarrhea and constipation; lovely, huh? So, is it really worth it to eat the stuff and can you stop these undesirable effects? You surely can; tackling the problems in order, I’ll first say for flatulence: in the case of foods like beans, it’s best to avoid the canned variety and cook them fresh. To stifle the ability flatulence has to ruin your poor, poor social life, soak the beans (There’s a chart provided here for approximate soak times.) This breaks down some of the oligosaccharides and phytates in the beans and releases gases that would be inside you otherwise. NOTE: Be sure to dump out the soak water and wash the beans again before cooking. This will get the phytates off, saving you further nutrient absorption woes. As for the problem with nutrient absorption and potential diarrhea, these are mostly due to excessive soluble fiber consumption. The recommended daily intake of fiber is 25-30g, but most Americans only take in about 13g; so, it’s safe to say that for the average American, their fiber intake isn’t the reason they’re suffering from lack of nutrients. Just don’t go hog wild on the pinto beans, and you won’t be in any danger of these two maladies. Finally, the constipation: Again, this is an issue of heightened fiber intake, this time paired with inadequate fluid consumption. This is an excellent time to mention that one should always make sure to drink water with his or her fiber, as otherwise the fiber has a tendency to harden in the digestive system, and obstruct the intestines (not to mention not do its beneficial jobs as well). Not that you have to drink a liter of water after every bit of fiber; remember, you’re looking at about 30g a day. Divide that by 3-6 meals and that’s a negligible amount per meal- just have a sip of agua every once in a while, and you’ll be dandy! One final related note on soluble fiber: Increases in fiber (both kinds, actually) should be somewhat gradual to allow your system to acclimate itself. See what works best for you, over time, adding and subtracting as necessary and using the 30g/day as a guideline.
This stuff is tough; it’s called “insoluble” because it won’t dissolve in water. For the most part, insoluble fibers can’t be affected by your digestive system in any way. In short, they go right through you (I was trying to make that 1 part creepy to 1 part making you feel powerless; how did I do? Rate on a scale of Clive Barker to Kim Ki-duk). Insoluble fiber offers up its own interesting benefits to complement, separate it from, and sometimes contrast with its brother, soluble fiber. In adequate amounts, it fills you up faster, decreases appetite, and lowers the glycemic index of foods eaten (even later in the day). Definitely comparable to soluble fiber’s abilities with sugar, paired with the added benefit of stopping you from stuffing your face! Insoluble fiber also speeds up the digestion of foods, helping push them through your system and adding bulk to your stool (helping stave off constipation). This is in direct contrast to soluble fiber, which slows down digestion with its gel-like properties. Does this mean the two fiber types fight one another, and thus shouldn’t be taken simultaneously? It absolutely doesn’t, and in fact insoluble fiber taken without soluble fiber can cause diarrhea. In essence, the complement is in the contrast; insoluble fiber keeps things moving in the system, while soluble fiber keeps it from moving too fast and also limits the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar. As previously stated, fiber-related ills only really arise with superfluous amounts ingested, often with little or no water, so keeping both types confined to around 30g a day (which shouldn’t be hard at all) should have you avoiding the problems. Back to insoluble fiber specifically, it can be found in whole wheat/grain products, nuts, seeds, and certain vegetables.
Best places to get both types (says ME)
So, you wanna get on the fiber diet plan train like you know you should? Fiber rich foods don’t necessarily mean “tasteless foods” as you may believe, or that you’re some old fogy who has to drink his Metamucil to “stay regular.” In fact, I don’t encourage the practice of taking supplements like that, at all. Metamucil, for example, only has about 3g of fiber per serving and includes sugars and artificial flavors and colorants; most fiber supplements (and supplements in general) have such things, so I say to avoid those and get your fiber from the foods where it’s naturally housed. That said, gonna point you in that direction. Might as well start with the most important meal of the day, breakm’fast. Seems like a meal with that accolade should get a heapin’ helpin’ of the good stuff. So, here’s an option for a high fiber breakfast :
Oh yeah, I did it; I’m plugging a specific name-brand product. Not that I work for Attune Foods, the company that creates this fine cereal product, but this stuff is grrrrrrrreat! (Copyright as long as the big cereal companies have forced sugar down your throats, Kellogg’s). Not only does it offer a whopping 10 grams of total fiber per serving (mostly as insoluble), but it is non-GMO and cheap! (Though not the $1.69 pictured; wish I lived where that guy does- it’s $2.99, here) When it comes to high fiber cereals, this guy’s the champ. No added sugars, and it doesn’t taste awful. It’s funny, because though it doesn’t say anything about it on the box, the store I buy it from has “Uncle Sam Fiber Laxative Cereal” on the tag below it. At 7g of insoluble fibers per serving, that may be true; but I’ve never had to run to the bathroom or anything, and I eat this stuff pretty much everyday.
Getting out of breakfast territory, the rest of the day can be punctuated with some old pals of ours:
Well, pretty obvious to mention these guys. Look, I’m not asking you to eat them all day (though you really should, in lieu of fatty burgers, chips, et cetera), but eating some, particularly after a meal, is a great way to get fiber into your system and keep it in good shape. Think of them as your snacks; your fiber snacks.
Apples: Apple fiber is some of the best soluble fiber this planet offers, and since apples are pretty useless to juice as they have such small concentrations of nutrients why not buy a few for chompin’? Plus, they fill you up fast and curb your appetite- thanks, in part, to the soluble fiber contained within.
Strawberries: The fiber in strawberries is surprising, given their small size (Actually, strawberries have a lot of surprises in the world of nutrients; a lot of vitamin C, for example). A cup of the critters has about 3g of total fiber.
Avocados: Not much for “sweets?” This grown-up fruit concoction (Yeah, I guess it’s scientifically considered a fruit) is a nutrient powerhouse. It’s gotten a bad rap in the past for being composed mainly of fat, but now that we know fats, especially unsaturated fats, are actually good for you, it’s slowly coming back into the limelight (no color pun intended?). And at 10g of total fiber per avocado, how can you go wrong? Carve out the good green stuff, spray some lemon juice and salt, and you have a quick guacamole lunch!
Sweet potatoes: Another of the more “adult” foods, this time in the way of root vegetables. The sweet potato is even more vitamin and nutrient-dense than the avocado, and packs a punch of fiber as well. Now, I know a lot of folks who gag at the thought of eating sweet potatoes for whatever reason. I don’t understand this as I love them pretty much any way they’re sliced, myself, but here’s a suggestion: Sweet potato fries! No, I don’t mean actually fried (as fried/heated oils are terrible for you). Cut up a sweet potater into fry sizes, stick ‘em on a foiled baking pan (with equal space in between ‘em; otherwise they will “sweat” and cook inproperly) with salt and pepper at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Take ‘em out, turn them and stick them in for about 10 minutes more. Then, they’re done and ready to have a drizzle of olive oil and garlic powder. This is one of my favorite treats, and even acceptable for you finicky sweet potato haters, out there. I will also note, too, that in the case of sweet potatoes and all root vegetables, it is imperative to buy organic. Root vegetables are roots, so they specialize in absorbing things. That means any pesticide or hormone used in the growing process is definitely going to show up on the inside i.e. in your food. If you balk on buying organic or only will do it for certain things, make sure root vegetables make the top of that list.
…and the list of natural fiber supplements goes on and on. No need for the powdered stuff with this great selection, and it’s all provided by nature! Fiber rich foods are easy to work into your diet; as easy as buying a terrible candy bar or unnatural fiber supplement, and I think I’ve made their benefits obvious. Just remember this mantra:
“If I eat something “bad,” eat some fiber too; and when I eat fiber…drink some water!”
Okay, so I was hoping that mantra would be more catchy. I’ll work on my rhymes, but in the meantime I’ll say: Whatever your source of fiber, just make sure you get it. Not only for the sake of longevity, but for feeling energetic and well now, and keeping the gears of your internal system running cleanly!