It’s easy to get caught up in counting calories and grams of added sugars, fats, proteins, and carbs when you’re trying to eat well. But there’s one nutrient that too often gets thrown to the wayside: dietary fiber.
Scientists have long known that eating fiber is good for health. Decades ago, Irish physician (and fiber enthusiast) Denis Burkitt proclaimed, “America is a constipated nation… if you pass small stools, you have to have large hospitals.” And yet, years later, many of us are still ignoring our fiber intake.
American adults are only eating an average of 15 grams of fiber on any given day, despite the daily recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics being:
- 25 grams for women, or 21 grams if over 50 years old
- 38 grams for men, or 30 grams if over 50
Recently, however, fiber has popped up in headlines thanks to people like journalist Megyn Kelly and model Molly Sims, who have both credited their physiques on mainlining roughage. And more importantly, new research has been shedding more light on how fiber helps our bodies. This nutrient has been linked to fending off disease and reducing the risk of a range of conditions, including type 2 diabetes, food allergies, and even knee arthritis.
Star-studded endorsements aside, it’s not about eating a “high-fiber” diet as much as it’s simply this: Eat more fiber. Fiber does more than contributing to weight loss and reducing the risk of disease.
Losing out on those recommended fiber grams per day may significantly change the way your gut functions. It could even make a difference between weight loss or none, and longer life or not.
Many studies have strongly linked high-fiber diets with longer and healthier lives. For example, Dr. Burkitt, as mentioned above, found in the 1960s that Ugandans who ate high-fiber vegetable diets avoided many of the common diseases of Europeans and Americans. In addition, studies in the late ’80s found that long-living rural Japanese populations ate high-fiber diets, as opposed to urban dwellers with lower fiber intakes.
But only recently have we gained a deeper understanding of why fiber is so vital to our well-being.
A 2017 study found that the importance of fiber is intimately tied with the importance of our gut microbes. A proper fiber diet literally feeds and makes these bacteria thrive. In turn, they increase in number and kind. The more microbes we have in our intestines, the thicker the mucus wall and the better the barrier between our body and our busy bacteria population. While the mucus barrier lowers inflammation throughout the body, the bacteria aid in digestion, creating a dual benefit.
A living, walking example of the great connection between fiber, intestinal bacteria, and health are the Hazda, a Tanzanian tribe that’s one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer communities in the world. They eat a spectacular 100 grams of fiber a day, all from food sources that are seasonally available. As a result, their gut biome is packed with diverse populations of bacteria, which ebb and flow with the changing of the seasons and the changes in their diet.
Your biome can change by the season, by the week, or even by the meal. And if you eat a large array of fresh fruits, grains, and vegetables, your gut health will reflect that. Eating low-fiber foods, or eating only a few types of fiber — such as the same fiber supplement every day — can harm your intestinal biome and the health of your protective mucus wall.
However, eating too much fiber can cause digestive distress, gas, and intestinal blockages. The good news is that it’s hard to get too much fiber, especially since most people don’t get enough. Slowly ramping up your fiber intake can help you avoid some of the above problems. Not overdoing it will help you avoid the rest.
So how can we ditch our constipated ways and eat more in line with how our bodies have evolved to function alongside our gut biomes? While there are two types of fiber — soluble fiber and insoluble fiber — high-fiber enthusiasts are all about both types. Each kind has its own functions and benefits. Getting both is key to getting the most out of this nutrient.
Here are some quick tips to build a thriving and diverse gut biome and reap the long-term benefits of a fiber-friendly diet:
Fruits and vegetables are always your friend
Fiber is naturally found in all fruits and vegetables. You can’t really go wrong by adding these components to your daily regime. In fact, one study found that simply eating an apple before every meal had significant health benefits.
Eat what’s in season
The Hazda have a diverse gut in part by eating seasonally. Always check out your grocery store’s fresh, in-season fruits and veggies. Not only are they great for you, but they also often taste better and are less expensive than what’s out of season.
Processed foods usually mean less fiber
Refined foods that don’t contain whole grains or whole wheat are also lower in fiber. This includes white bread and regular pasta. Juicing is also processed in a sense, since it removes the insoluble fiber from your food. The result is that you lose fiber’s benefits — especially its important job of regulating digestion and keeping blood sugar from spiking.
Be thoughtful at restaurants
Restaurants, especially fast-food joints, often skimp on fruits and veggies because they’re expensive. When looking at the menu, be sure to pick something rich in fruit, veggies, and beans or legumes that will help you meet your fiber goals for the day.
Toss a high-fiber component into your meal
Next time you have a piece of pizza, make sure to munch on a handful of snap peas on the side, or add some multigrain crackers if you’re eating soup for lunch. Eating a high-fiber snack before your meal can also mean eating fewer calories altogether, because you’ll feel more full.
Don’t forget beans, peas, and lentils
We often remember to eat our fruits and veggies, but legumes are a wonderful and delicious source of fiber. Try a recipe that puts legumes in the spotlight, like a three-bean vegetarian chili or a lentil salad.
Make sure fiber starts at breakfast
Most traditional breakfast foods, like eggs and bacon, lack fiber. Integrate fiber into the first meal of your day by eating oatmeal or a whole-grain cereal. You can also simply add a piece of fruit to your regular fare. Eating yogurt for breakfast? Add sliced fruit and nuts.
Explore the world of whole grains
Next time you’re at the grocery store, pick up some amaranth, bulgur, pearl barley, or wheat berries and start exploring. Other good high-fiber choices are quinoa (a seed) or whole-wheat couscous (a pasta).
Skip the fiber supplements
Fiber supplements can give you a small boost, but the benefits of getting your fiber from whole foods are much greater. What’s more, people taking fiber supplements might not be pairing them with high-nutrient foods. This causes rather than solves health issues.
Too much of a good thing
Just like most things, fiber isn’t great in extremely high quantities. Focusing too much on one aspect of your nutrient intake is neither sustainable nor healthy, either. Try tracking your fiber intake for a few weeks to see if you’re getting enough, then tinker with your intake to see if eating a little more improves how you feel.
At this point, there’s enough science out there to strongly suggest something you’ve likely heard before: Eating a robust variety of minimally processed fruits and veggies along with other plant-based foods is a great way to stay healthy and control your weight — and the fiber in these foods is likely a central reason why they’re so great for our bodies. So go forth and repopulate more varieties of bacteria in your gut!
Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana, with her husband and two daughters. Her writing has appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and Reductress. You can reach out to her on Twitter.