Fiber Is So Great (March 12, 2019)
Last time we met, we were talking about – well, YOU remember ;-) . While I was working on that newsletter, dutifully exploring the mysteries of lagging bowel transit time for the edification of my readers, I kept encountering information about this Something. Something which, were I trying to sell a book about it, I would entitle “The Most Undervalued Nutrient”. Which, of course, would be fiber.
If you think about fiber much (and I hope you don’t have to – life is too short), you probably think of it as the annoying part of food that makes it harder to chew and that, for some reason, you are supposed to eat anyway. Which is essentially correct. To put it a little more technically, fiber is the family of carbohydrate polymers of the plants in the human diet that cannot be hydrolyzed by the endogenous enzymes in the small intestine. (I bet you could have gone the rest of your life without knowing that.) In normal people talk, fiber is the portion of food which is poorly (or not at all) broken down by the digestive system, and interestingly it is this very failure to be digested that gives it its value.
You see, by remaining largely intact all the way down to the colon and beyond, it performs important functions in the digestive system THAT NOTHING ELSE CAN. Because fiber is not a big deal just because of the regularity thing, although honestly that would be enough in itself. Lack of fiber is also associated with the faster progression of many common chronic diseases (to name just a few: arthritis; diabetes; heart disease; and multiple cancers).
Plus. I don’t know how you feel about your bowel bacteria. But you should be on very good terms with them because, like a good dog or an established azalea bush, they give so much while asking so little. It’s not a coincidence that pathological bowel microbes are associated with the same list of chronic diseases that I listed above – because not only does fiber move things along in a more genial fashion, they actually feed your bowel bacteria. And when your bowel bacteria ain’t happy, ain't no one happy.
The reason that sufficient fiber may be so pivotal in the prevention of so many different diseases may just be the simple fact that colon bacteria really, really like fiber. And that it's those happy bacteria that keep us healthy. So fiber is a true Star.
Because fiber is so unique and so useful, it is a grievous thing that fewer than 5% of Americans have enough of it in their diets. Specifically, the recommended amount of dietary fiber is 28-42 grams per day, and the median intake is 12-14 grams. Recommended is 25 grams for women and 38 for men. (Why the gender discrepancy? Because those numbers come from a recommended 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories of diet, and science says that men can eat more. Huh. Another example of male privilege.) So we get less than half the recommended amount? That is a big, bad discrepancy.
So! What to do about getting more fiber? Well, it’s found naturally in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans. Eat more of those things. Ha! That was easy, wasn’t it?
NO! Quite honestly, it isn’t. Unless that's all you’re eating, you aren’t going to get enough fiber. That's why most people are so deficient in the first place. Is there a way to, ah, turbo-charge your fiber consumption without giving up ALL of your Cheetos?
Well, you can take a supplement. I am especially fond of psyllium fiber capsules as a fiber supplement. But you can swallow just so many capsules, and supplements are never, ever a complete substitute for food. Plus there is more than one type of fiber and they perform different functions in your body (and feed different strains of bowel bacteria). So a supplement isn't a bad idea at all, but anyone who really lacks fiber in their diet needs also to make a point of adding at least one more high-fiber food to their daily diet.
So my recommendation for increasing fiber consumption would be to 1) find a nice supplement that gives you at least five grams of fiber a day, and 2) make a point of eating at least one more high-fiber food daily. Here are some especially good ones.
Pears. There's 5.5 grams of fiber in a medium sized pear. That’s a LOT.
Avocado. 7 grams in half a decent-sized avocado. Not those dwarf ones Kroger keeps selling, but a proper sized one. (You can eat them by themselves, Do this -- put a little Worcestershire sauce and a little lemon juice in the hole left when you take the pit out, and spoon it up. It is DELICIOUS.)
Coconut. (The flesh, of course) 3 grams in an OUNCE.
Apples. 4.4 grams in a medium sized apple. Including the skin. Not a bad amount of fiber, and apples are easy enough to get and are very nicely portable.
Broccoli. 1 cup chopped, 5.0 grams.
Strawberries. 3 grams per cup. (Which is also about 49 calories.)
Popcorn. Popped, 1.2 grams per cup. Not a lot, but no one eats just one cup of popcorn.
Raspberries. 8 grams in one cup of raspberries, 4 grams in a half cup.
Artichoke. 9-10 grams in one. If you eat just the hearts, 7 grams – and 45 calories -- in one.
Lentils. I hate them. But a half cup (cooked) is about 8 grams of fiber. Beans generally run 10-16 grams per cup cooked. That is a lot of fiber, and beans are really pretty yummy. Except for lentils.
One more thing. There are a lot of “high fiber” bars on the market, some of them very pricey, and in that same vein, there are also many foods that have been supplemented with fiber that don’t normally contain it. (Yogurt? Ice cream? With fiber? Really? Weird.) If you’re thinking of using any of them as a fiber supplement – don’t. They're pretty expensive per gram of fiber, and usually loaded with sugar and other junk besides. Plus some of the fibers that those foods contain may qualify as fiber for labeling purposes, but may not do what real fiber does in your body. I would stick to real food and honest fiber supplements.
All that said, if you are doing something that works for you already – and that’s true of anything, not just fiber – don’t stop doing it because someone said not to do so in some newsletter somewhere. If you’re really paying attention, you are, as always, the best judge of what’s actually good for you. Bon appetit.
--dr. diane holmes
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