According to the Mayo Clinic, “dietary fiber is the parts of the plant that the body can’t digest or absorb.” That’s not exactly the most helpful definition I’ve come across but they go on further: “it passes relatively intact through your stomach, small intestine, colon and out of your body.” Now we’re getting somewhere. We eat it, it goes through us and then out. So what’s the big deal about fiber and what role does it play while it’s in us, or more specifically, while it’s in our GI tract.
There are two distinct types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. The soluble is just that, it dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and stays intact as we pass it. From what dietary nutritionists know now, fiber plays a major role in how we digest food and keeps bowel movements regular and healthy. That’s a basic knowledge we’ve understood for quite some time but the real interesting facts are beginning to emerge as we delve deeper into fiber’s other side effects. What we are beginning to understand is that fiber can help with a long list of nutritional and health deficiencies plaguing Americans today. The benefits of fiber include:
- Colon Health: Reduces colon disease
- Lowers cholesterol levels: especially good for lowering the LDL or “Bad” cholesterol.
- Reduces Blood Pressure
- Controls blood sugar levels: can aid in absorption of sugars and fights diabetes
- Weight Loss: tends to be more filling and less energy dense.
So how much do we need to eat and how much are we actually getting? The FDA recommends the average male to consume 35-40 grams per day of dietary fiber while reports show that the average American is getting 12-16 g/day. A sad fact from the FDA is that 40% of children get their fiber intake mostly from pizza crust. So, on average we are eating about a 1/3 to ½ of the needed fiber and the results are clear to see. Diabetes, obesity, colon disease (just to name a few) are rampant in today’s culture, and blaming these maladies solely on the lack of fiber would be short-sighted but it’s indicative of how our relationship with food has evolved and provided so many unwanted consequences.
In a previous post, I quoted Michael Pollan who wrote “Eat foods your ancestors would recognize” He’s not referring to some paleo diet the cavemen ate, he’s talking about what we were eating 150 years ago. Maybe we should call it the “Victorian Diet”. Joking aside, we need to get back to basic essential food and minimize the processed and additive infused “food” that lines the supermarket shelves. Fiber, or the lack thereof, is just one little example of how we’ve gotten so far away from a healthy lifestyle.