To say fiber is important is an understatement. This under-eaten nutrient prevents and treats digestive problems, lowers disease risk, increases satiety and even aids weight loss. Unfortunately, found in mostly unprocessed foods, Americans tend to stay well under the recommended intake for this extremely important nutrient.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate which humans lack the ability to digest. Fiber is classified into two groups: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel while insoluble fiber does not mix with water. Once ingested, these two nutrients have different effects on overall health.
1. Diarrhea and Stool Softener. When soluble fiber enters the digestive system, it absorbs water and forms a gel. This behavior treats diarrhea because the soluble fiber absorbs excess water present in the digestive system. Another result of this relationship is softer stool. The gel formed when soluble fiber and water mix softens stool, allowing for easier passage through the digestive system.3
2. Constipation. Insoluble fiber does not mix or attract water and does not form a gel when the two meet. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool and helps push everything out. This type of fiber acts as a natural laxative which treats constipation.3, 4
3. Improved Overall Health and Decreased Disease Risk. Fiber has been shown to treat many diseases. Soluble fiber decreases total and LDL (the bad kind) cholesterol which decreases the risk of heart disease2, improves glycemia and insulin sensitivity in both diabetic and non-diabetic individuals1, regulates stool frequency in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome3 and treats hemorrhoids3. Some research has also indicated a diet high in fiber lowers the risk of certain types of cancer3.
4. Satiety and Weight Loss. Soluble fiber slows down digestion. This increases the feeling of fullness and potentially lowers overall calorie intake. When used as part of a larger weight loss strategy, fiber enhances weight loss results and prevents and treats obesity.
5. Improved Diet. Increasing fiber intake requires a diet built on a foundation of healthy foods. Fiber isn't found in junk or fast food; it's found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and oats. These foods, while high in fiber, are also loaded with other key nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Increasing fiber intake increases reliance on healthy foods, providing compounding benefits.
The Bottom Line
Fiber has many important health benefits. Unfortunately, this super nutrient is found in foods which Americans do not eat enough of. Fiber is found in unprocessed foods. Ready to eat and heavily processed foods, while convenient, lack sufficient levels of fiber to promote a healthy diet. Inadequate levels of fiber leads to a poor diet, increased disease risk, digestive irregularity and potentially, unwanted weight gain.
- Anderson, J. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition Reviews, 67, 188-205. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from http://nutritionreviews.oxfordjournals.org/content/67/4/188.long
- Brown, L. (1999). Cholesterol-lowering effects of dietary fiber: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69, 30-42. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/69/1/30.full
- Fiber. (2015, August 05). Retrieved March 19, 2016, from http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/fiber
- Fiber. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2016, from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber/