Increasing the fiber in your diet has been shown to: reduce your cholesterol, reduce your hunger, lower your fat absorption, reduce surges in insulin levels, help with weight loss, lower the risk of colon cancer, and lower your risk of heart disease. WOW! Sounds like a miracle cure – where can I get this stuff? The answer: At your grocery store.
Old Ben Franklin, citing in Poor Richard’s Almanac 250 years ago stated “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Well he was right. Not only because the apple contains vitamins and minerals, but also because it is a major source of fiber. Maybe three apples a day keeps three doctors away!
What is fiber? Well, it is basically indigestible complex carbo-hydrates that come from plant foods. What your Grandma called “roughage” is called fiber by scientists. When you look at some food labels, fiber is often listed under carbohydrates – but it is not a single food or substance and by itself has no calories because your body cannot absorb it.
There are actually two types of fiber and they have different health benefits. The two types are “water soluble” and “water insoluble”. Soluble fibers include the skins of fruits such as apples, oranges (not the orange peel, but the white material after you peel it), pears, peaches and grapes; the skins of vegetables, seeds; oat bran, dried beans, oatmeal, barley, rye, and prunes. Insoluble fibers include the meat of fruits and vegetables, dried beans, wheat bran, seeds, popcorn, brown rice, and whole grain products such as breads, cereals, and pasta.
Bran of course does bulk up the diet and results in larger, softer stools. But it actually does more than prevent constipation – there are clear data showing that fiber also reduces the risk of colon cancers. The “stickiest” kinds of fiber are the gums and pectins (soluble fiber) and they help keep cholesterol under control by removing bile acids that digest fat. Bile acids, which promote better digestion, unfortunately also contribute much to the “reabsorption” from the bowel wall of our bodies own “home-made” cholesterol. Every gram of fiber intake per day reduces your total blood cholesterol by approximately one point. The same class of fibers may help regulate blood sugar as well. This latter feat is accomplished by coating the bowel’s lining and delaying stomach emptying. As a result, fiber can slow sugar absorption after a meal and may reduce the amount of insulin needed to keep blood sugar at the right levels. Reducing the over-production of insulin is a major factor in reducing obesity.
Insulin “resistance” (abnormally high insulin levels) is common in very obese patients and may be a factor in “obesity begets obesity”. Fiber is also a weight watchers dream since fibers called cellulose and hemicelluloses take up space in the stomach, making us feel full; thus lowering total caloric intake at meal time. Popular agents such as Metamucil are actually an important part of many weight reduction diets as they slow down absorption of sugars taken in as part of most meals – promoting further weight loss.
The average American gets only 14 grams of fiber per day in their diet. Most scientists agree that the optimal amount is closer to 35 grams per day. Increasing the consumption of “complex” carbo-hydrates is the best way to increase fiber intake. Fiber supplements are also available at the grocery. However, be aware that a large increase in your fiber intake over a short period of time may result in bloating, diarrhea, gas and general discomfort. It is important then to increase the fiber amount in your diet gradually over a period of time (up to three weeks) to allow your “gut” to acclimated and avoid abdominal side-effects.