FIBER: Lifeline To Health!
Fiber Protects Against Diet-Related Diseases.
50% + Of Americans Have These Diseases.
AND Only 3% Of Americans Eat Enough Fiber!
What’s Your Fiber Fitness Level?
Our children are only at the starting line of dietary fiber intake. To our national shame, the adult conditions – constipation, overweight/obesity, and type 2 diabetes (markers of inadequate fiber intake) – continue to increase among them.
Sadly, very little research exists addressing either the dietary fiber intake of children or its effects on their health.
If their present health situation continues, very few will reach the finish line at a “healthy, old age”.
— Siri Khalsa
Fiber: Lifeline To Health
In the United States and most other Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases (eg., heart disease, diabetes, obesity, etc.) represent the single largest cause of disease and death.
They are epidemic in Westernized populations and typically afflict 50-65% of all adults.
In the US, these diseases cause seven of every 10 deaths. In addition, the annual tab amounts to 86% of all health care spending – or $258 trillion!
In hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized peoples the diseases are rare or nonexistent.
What’s So Exciting About Fiber?
Possibly no other macro-nutrient exists that has the transformative power of fiber.
Simply adding the fiber we need to our diets can protect us from chronic disease, improve our health, and increase our longevity.
In the current national climate of declining health, fiber is poised to become the next “single food solution”. Better be ready for a fiber storm.
The average amount of fiber eaten per person in the US is 15 grams.1
The recommended amount for women is >26 grams and for men, >38 grams. (A healthy average would be 32 grams, twice what it is.)
According to NHANES,2 only 3% of Americans meet dietary fiber intake recommendations. Thus, 97% of us are not eating enough fiber.
There is a huge opportunity for improved health among Americans. I find that very exciting, don’t you?
Mention fiber and most of us think of constipation. Right? Constipation is the number one health complaint in the US. (No surprise given our low fiber intake.)
Low fiber can also underlie or exacerbate related problems, including appendicitis, hemorrhoids, deep vein thrombosis, diverticular disease, hiatal hernia, and gastric reflux.
The good news is that those same problems can generally be helped by gradually adding more fiber to the diet.
Other benefits of adequate fiber intake include improving digestive health, managing weight, lowering blood pressure, improving blood lipid profiles3,, increasing insulin sensitivity, enhancing immunity, fighting inflammation, promoting healthy gut bacteria (our “probiotics”), and protecting us against chronic diet-related diseases.
In short, fiber is much more than we thought….
What’s So Exciting About Fiber?
1 According to Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, biologist at Stanford, during our early history as hunter gatherers, we were eating 10 times that amount or 150 grams of fiber daily!
2 The NHANES is the acronym for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey taken every10 years by the CDC.
This stat apparently comes from the 1995 survey. And, no, it certainly hasn’t gotten any better during the last 20 years. Are you kidding? Let’s keep our fingers X for 2020.
3 Soluble fibers are able to reduce total and LDL cholesterol beyond what is achieved by a diet low in saturated fat and low in fiber.
Why Is Fiber Called The Guardian Of Health?
Abundant evidence shows that adequate fiber is protective against the following poor health conditions:
• inflammation • overweight/obesity
• gut complaints • type 2 diabetes
• metabolic syndrome • heart disease
• some kinds of cancer
All these complaints are diet-related. One common element they share is low dietary fiber intake. In other words, not enough fiber puts us at risk for acquiring them.
A few words about fiber and cancer….
For a long time, it was believed that a diet high in fiber protected against colon cancer. However, recent research summaries declare that evidence for this is inconclusive.4
Happily, a 2016 Harvard study showed that higher fiber intake reduces breast cancer risk.
It suggests that adequate fiber during childhood and adolescence may be particularly important.
Why Is Fiber Called The Guardian Of Health?
4 Evidence is drawn from the classic Harvard study of 16,000 women nurses.
What IS Dietary Fiber?
Although fiber is classified as a carbohydrate, we do not have the enzymes to break it down into sugar. Ironically, it is an essential nutrient that is indigestible.
Three different types of fiber have been distinguished: soluble, insoluble, and resistant starch. They can all be present in one food.
Researchers will likely make further distinctions. For example, soluble fibers, which mix with liquid to form a gel, differ in their benefits. Some work better as prebiotics while others function for lowering cholesterol, slowing digestion, and promoting satiety. This type of fiber is in oats, legumes, berries, nuts, and seeds.
Insoluble fibers help our digestive systems to run more efficiently. This is the fiber type that promotes regularity or remedies constipation. It is abundant in the brans of grains (e.g., wheat, rice, corn, and oat brans).
Resistant starch (RS), discovered several years ago, is resistant to breaking down in the small intestine. Rather, it passes through to the large intestine where it is fermented by our intestinal bacteria (microbiota) and becomes their favorite food.
Although RS shares the benefits of the other two fibers, it also has its own unique benefits. RS is particularly useful for weight control and is being promoted as a “natural fat burner”.
It produces satiety effects immediately after meals, and effects last up to 24 hours.
One study found that replacing just 5.4% of total carbohydrate intake with resistant starch created a 20 to 30% increase in fat burning after eating.
RS content is high in starchy grains and veggies (barley, potatoes, yams, carrots).
The secret to getting the resistant starch benefits is to eat the food cold or cooled. (Think humus and potato salad.)
What’s Fiber Got To Do With Fire?
Chronic, low level systemic inflammation is a harbinger of disease. It is a symptom of every health problem mentioned in this issue. Fiber protects us against inflammation.
Some studies have found that people who eat diets high in fiber have lower levels of systemic inflammation.
This is assessed by measuring blood levels for C-reactive protein. A marker of inflammation, C-reactive protein (CRP) is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, CRP is recognized as a predictor of these diseases.
One year long study involved 524 persons. By year’s end, researchers had learned that the upper quarter of people eating the most fiber were 63% less likely to have elevated CRP levels than those in the lowest quarter.
The research team emphasized government recommendations for a diet high in fiber.
High fiber foods also feed the beneficial bacteria living in the gut. These microscopic life forms release substances that quench inflammation throughout the body.
Fiber and its essential relationship to our microbiota is up next for discussion.
What’s Going On With Fiber & Our Gut?
In our gut,5 there is a conglomerate of bacteria, beneficial and harmful. It is made up of trillions of living organisms, This is our microbiota.6 Each of us harbors this “organ” which is as distinctly ours as our signature or fingerprints.
FIBER Is The Preferred Food Of Our Beneficial Microbes. Many readers are familiar with the terms probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are common strains of beneficial microbes available commercially. Prebiotics are types of fiber that feed our microbiota.
Microbes feast on fiber that we cannot digest. The fiber we eat arrives in the large intestine mostly intact. (See RS, resistant starch, in “What IS Dietary Fiber?”) There it is fermented and devoured by our trillions of hungry microbes. The microbes extract the fiber’s extra energy (as short chain fatty acids, SCFA7), nutrients, vitamins, and other compounds for us.
Probiotics are reinforcements for our own microbiota. They bring relief and/or solve digestive problems because our microbes are too weak or too few to perform their health-giving miracles for us.
What happens when we don’t feed enough fiber to our microbes? According to Eric Martens, PhD, Microbiology, University of Michigan, he and his colleagues found that while some famished microbes die of starvation, others switch fuels and eat the mucus layer lining our gut. When healthy, this lining keeps the gut wall intact and free from infection. Lab animals fed a fiber free diet have a mucus layer that is “dramatically diminished”.
Thinning of the gut lining leads to leaky gut syndrome. Undigested food escapes into the bloodstream. About 60% of the immune system cells are in the small intestine. The immune system interprets the undigested food particles as foreign invaders and raises an inflammatory response. If the gut is not healed, the inflammatory response becomes chronic.
In 2014, a Swedish team found a link between microbes eating the mucus layer and ulcerative colitis, a painful chronic bowel disease. This is just one disorder. Likely, other gut disorders associated with hungry bacteria will be revealed in future.
What happens to microbes when their people eat more fiber? Kelly Swanson, PhD, Comparative Nutrition, University of Illinois, and his team, found that participants showed a big positive change in microbial profiles. In this small study (N=21), participants ate a fiber-enriched snack bar every day for 3 weeks. The bar contained a whopping 21 grams of fiber. At the end of the study, beneficial microbes increased while the baddies decreased. The new microbial profile correlated with that of thinner persons who have a lower BMI.8
Since Swanson’s study wasn’t about weight loss, we don’t know if his people lost weight, only that they appeared to be heading in that direction. However, Martens, et al, observed that fiber-eating mice ate fewer calories and were slimmer than mice eating a non-fiber diet.
Incidentally, Swanson reported that the participants’ microbial profiles returned to baseline once they stopped eating the high fiber bars. Somewhat similarly, Martens, et al, ran a group of mice which received high fiber and low fiber chow on alternate days. (He likened it to giving the mice junk food every other day.) Well, dang, the part time high fiber diet was not enough to keep a gut healthy. The little junk eaters had mucus layers about half the thickness of mice on the full time fiber diet.
Our diet relates directly to the health of our microbiota, which, in turn, relates directly to our health.
What’s Going On With Fiber & Our Gut?
5 The word gut refers to the gastrointestinal tract, particularly the belly and intestines.
6 The human microbiota consists of the 10-100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells, primarily bacteria in the gut.
The human microbiome consists of the genes these cells harbor, Ursell, et al, “Defining the Human Microbiome”.
7 SCFA are linked to improved immune function, decreased inflammation, and protection against obesity.
8 BMI, body mass index, is a key index for relating weight to height.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) now defines normal weight, overweight, and obesity according to BMI rather than the traditional height/weight charts.
More Fiber = Longer Life!
Eating sufficient fiber can protect us from disease and disability into old age. In fact, evidence shows that people who eat enough fiber actually live longer.
In spring 2016, The Journals of Gerontology published a 10-year study showing a positive relationship between fiber intake and longevity.
The study by Gopinath, et al, was the first to look at carbohydrate intake and aging. The winning carbohydrate was fiber. B. Gopinath, PhD, epidemiologist, commented,
“Essentially, we found that those who had the highest intake of fiber had an 80 percent greater likelihood of living a long and healthy life over a 10-year follow-up.”
The study through the University of Sydney involved more than 1600 persons aged 49 or older.
Successful aging was defined as an absence of disability, depressive symptoms, cognitive impairment, respiratory symptoms, and chronic diseases, including cancer, coronary artery disease, and stroke.
The researchers found that, in general, adults who closely adhered to Australian national dietary guidelines reached old age with an absence of chronic diseases and disability, and had good functional mental health.
Maximize Your Fiber Intake
Are you one of only 3% of Americans who eat sufficient fiber?
The probabilities are against you – unless you’re a vegan. In their Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, the USDA lists fiber second under “Nutrients of Concern”.9
This is because fiber is grossly underconsumed. Again, women ought to be eating at least 25 grams of fiber/d (or 14g/1000 calories), and men, 38 grams (18g/1000 calories). These are bare minimums. Meanwhile, the average fiber intake is 15 grams.
It’s simple, but it ain’t easy! Begin by tracking your fiber intake daily for long enough that you get the gist. (It only took me one day to realize that I had to be fiber conscious every day.) Then, to build your intake, you need to continue tracking until you’re satisfied with a good ongoing result. (It takes 40 days to set a habit.)
This task is easier if you have a smart phone which has many free apps to help you track. Otherwise, you can buy a small fiber reference book. True, tracking is annoying. However, it is the only way to learn 1) Where you are with your fiber intake and 2) What the food fiber values are.
What are the high fiber foods?
Beans are #1. For example, a cup of lentils has 11-13 grams of fiber while a cup of apple sauce has less than 3 grams! (Same for a raw apple with the skin.)
Dried fruits are high, but who eats a cup of raisins? Same with nuts. Look for high fiber breads and cereals. Learn the fiber counts and keep chipping away at eating all the fiber you need.
Here is a photo of a 50 gram fiber day! Notice all the beans and whole foods.
Increase your fiber slowly or it might cause gas and bloating. At the same time, be sure to increase your water intake.
Fiber needs water to work in your body. Lots of water is especially important if you decide to boost your fiber intake by using a fiber supplement.
Maximize Your Fiber Intake
9 The first is potassium, then fiber. In order, the others are calcium, vitamin D3, iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12.
Do Fiber Supplements Work?
Certain fiber supplements promote weight loss.
These are viscous soluble fibers such as pectins, β-glucans, psyllium, glucomannan, and guar gum. They thicken in water, forming a gel-like substance that “sits” in your gut.
This results in a feeling of fullness which lasts several hours, dampens appetite, and discourages eating.
The fibers mentioned are available as supplements. You absolutely must drink several glasses of water with each serving of these fibers or they will “bind you up”.
Fiber supplements used to lower inflammation are dependent on your weight for their effectiveness.
In a study to determine whether fiber supplements rather than with high fiber food help to lower CRP, Dana E. King, MD, Family Medicine, West Virginia University compared the two.
He found that both naturally occurring fiber and fiber supplements worked to lower CRP.
However, CRP went down 40 percent in normal weight people but only 10 percent in those who were overweight.
In a later study, he found that in overweight and obese people supplemental fiber was totally ineffective in lowering inflammation. To read more about this go to arthritis.org and search fiber inflammation.
Fiber-Storm: Fortifying With Fiber
According to the IFIC 2015 Food Survey,10 55% of consumers want to increase their fiber intake and 63% actively read labels for fiber content when making shopping choices.
The demand for fiber is out there, and food manufacturers are working to bring you a variety of foods that have been fortified with fiber.
There are many fibers available to formulators, each with its own functionalities and health attributes.
Among their functions, fiber ingredients can reduce the need for sugar, improve texture, and replace fat.
In addition, there is research supporting health effects of several fiber ingredients, including chicory root, dextrin, scFOS (short-chain fructooligosaccharides), and GOS (galacto-oligosaccharides).
In this issue, we report a study using a daily bar with 21 grams of fiber.
I’m all over that. Women and youngsters could eat one bar a day and men, two. At least the country’s basic fiber intake would be covered.
Do you remember when the Zone Diet became popular? In the blink of an eye, 40-30-30 bars were everywhere.
Let’s not be caught blinking when those high fiber bars hit the market! Eat ‘em up!
Fiber-Storm: Fortifying With Fiber
10 International Food and Information Council.
Siri Says: Could fiber become the saving grace of the Western Diet?
After 40 years of misdirection, we all know that disease is multifactorial. For example, saturated fat is not the Boogey Man of heart disease.
However, consider this, our Paleolithic progenitors didn’t eat any refined foods, such as sugar, grains, and oils.
Likewise they didn’t eat dairy or fatty meats. (These foods make up over 70% of our caloric intake.) Problem is most of us like our food, and don’t want to stop eating it.
We now know that our microbes crave fiber and that meeting fiber minimums keeps them and us healthy.
I say that eating 30-50+ grams of fiber daily will transform for the better the health of every person who takes it on.
Of course I advocate for whole foods, adding more of them and getting off empty calories is the best way to go. And I understand that fiber fortification will make the transformation to a high fiber diet easier. I say, “More fiber for everybody!”
Fiber: Related Resources
Here is the info for three especially interesting articles which informed this issue: