It isn’t protein we should be chasing… but fiber!
Updated: May 8
We all know that a balanced diet is essential to our wellbeing, and we try to consume foods high in nutrients and make sure we get out macros…carbohydrates, fats and proteins. But we need one more ‘macro’ to support our health. If you guessed fiber, you’re correct. While fiber may not be at the top of your ‘woohoo’ list, this often-overlooked nutrient offers several benefits. Scientific research has shown that fiber has many positive effects on our health, from lowering the risk of chronic diseases to improving gut health.
What is Fiber?
The National Academy of Medicine describes fiber as dietary fibers, which include lignans and indigestible carbohydrates found in plants. In other words, dietary fiber includes the components of plant meals that your body cannot digest or absorb. It is often referred to as roughage or bulk. Although most carbohydrates are converted into the sugar molecules known as glucose, fiber cannot be converted into sugar molecules and instead travels through your stomach, small intestine, and colon relatively undamaged before leaving your body.
There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber, both of which are good for your health.
● Soluble fiber: This is the type of fiber that dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance that slows down digestion. Besides lowering blood cholesterol, soluble fiber can also help lower blood glucose levels. Oatmeal, chia seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, apples, and blueberries are examples of foods that contain soluble fiber.
● Insoluble fiber: This type of fiber does not dissolve in water. It can be helpful for people who struggle with constipation or irregular stools, since it encourages the passage of material through your digestive tract and increases stool bulk. Whole wheat products (particularly wheat bran), quinoa, brown rice, legumes, leafy greens like kale, almonds, walnuts, seeds, and fruits with edible skins like pears and apples are examples of foods high in insoluble fiber.
Fiber can be referred to in a variety of ways under the general categories of insoluble and soluble fibers. It may have a viscous, gel-like consistency or be fermentable because gut bacteria consume it and ferment it. Non-fermentable fibers, which are those that are not broken down by bacteria, reach the colon intact and can provide stools with more weight and volume to make them easier to pass. These qualities have positive effects on health, including slowing down digestion, delaying blood sugar spikes after meals, encouraging the growth of beneficial bacterial colonies, and having a laxative impact.
Additionally, there are numerous subtypes of soluble and insoluble fibers, some of which are produced synthetically and others of which are found naturally in plant-based foods. Cellulose, hemicellulose, lignins, beta-glucans, guar gum, inulin, oligofructose, oligosaccharides, fructooligosaccharides, pectins, and resistant starch are all naturally occurring plant fibers. Psyllium, inulin, oligosaccharides, pectins, resistant starch, gums, polydextrose, and polyols are examples of manufactured functional fibers.
Why should we eat fber?
● It improves gut health
Fiber is crucial for maintaining gut health. Consuming adequate fiber can support a balanced gut microbiome. Reduced risk of diverticulitis, a disorder in which pouches created in the colon get infected, is one advantage of eating adequate fiber in your diet. Food moves more easily through the digestive system and out of the pouches when it is fiber-rich.
Additionally, it assists in preventing or treating constipation, allowing waste to pass through the body easily. Fiber lessens constipation for many reasons. Some varieties of soluble fiber combine with water to form a gel that softens and bulks stools. The intestinal lining is somewhat irritated by insoluble fibers, which encourage the release of water and mucus to promote stool movement. As prebiotics or food for gut bacteria, some fibers ferment into short-chain fatty acids and boost water absorption in the intestines, resulting in softer, easier-to-pass stools.
A 2015 review found that dietary fiber improves stool volume, encourages regular bowel movements, and shortens the time waste spends in the intestines. A 2009 review found that dietary fiber is beneficial for gastrointestinal problems like hemorrhoids, diverticular disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hiatal hernias, and colorectal ulcers.
● It helps prevent heart diseases
Dietary fiber's impact on heart health, especially its ability to lower blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease, has been the subject of numerous research over the past few decades. People who consume high-fiber diets have much lower risks of cardiovascular disease and decreased odds of dying from these disorders, according to a 2017 analysis of data published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine. This review discovered that beta-glucan (6 grams/day) and psyllium (10 grams/day) fiber in particular demonstrated notable benefits in terms of a decreased risk of heart disease. According to scientists, fiber may have these heart-protective effects because it lowers total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as "bad cholesterol," which is a significant risk factor for heart problems.
High blood cholesterol levels cause fatty streaks and plaques to build up on artery walls. This increases the risk of coronary heart disease, including heart attacks, by dangerously narrowing them. Before it can block your arteries, soluble fibers can absorb extra cholesterol in your body and transport it outside. By limiting the synthesis of bile acid, soluble fiber may help lower blood cholesterol. Bile acids are created in the liver using cholesterol. In the intestine, soluble fiber binds to bile acids, which the body then excretes. Due to the decreased number of readily available bile acids, the liver will draw cholesterol from the blood to produce new bile acids, decreasing blood cholesterol.
● It helps reduce the risks of diabetes
Increased dietary fiber may help people with diabetes. To reduce blood sugar rises after meals, fiber can help the body absorb sugar more slowly. According to a 2018 research, those who consumed high-fiber diets, particularly cereal fiber, had a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. Additionally, these people saw a little drop in blood glucose levels.
Additionally, this study reveals that the combination of soluble and insoluble fiber predicted improved prevention of type 2 diabetes, whereas some earlier studies indicated that insoluble fiber was the fiber star in relation to type 2 diabetes. Although the reason fiber lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes is not fully understood, the researchers speculate that it may be due to a combination of fiber's beneficial effects on blood glucose levels, improvement of the gut microbiome, and reduction of inflammation in the body.
A diet low in fiber, particularly poor in cereal grains, yet rich in foods with a high glycemic index (leading to blood glucose spikes), was found to increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in large cohort studies of women. Brown rice, rye, oats, and wheat bran are the highest-fiber whole grains that are most strongly associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes, according to other large cohorts of male and female health professionals. Fruit and vegetable fibers don't seem to have a strong connection.
● It aids in weight management (‘woohoo’ anyone?)
A diet rich in dietary fiber can assist those trying to lose weight in controlling their weight loss. You're more likely to eat less and feel fuller for longer if you consume meals high in fiber. Additionally, high-fiber foods take longer to consume and are less "energy dense," which means they contain fewer calories per unit of food. Researchers found in a 2019 study by The Journal of Nutrition that those who consumed more dietary fiber lost more weight and adhered to their calorie-restricted diet.
Participants in the randomized controlled experiment were assigned at random to one of four calorie-restricted diet groups. Additionally, they were told to undertake 90 minutes of physical activity each week and gradually increase their dietary fiber intake. According to the findings, participants dropped roughly the same amount of weight regardless of diet style. This supports what earlier research found, which is that increasing your fiber consumption will help you lose weight.
A 2017 study published in The Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism found some indication that those who consume more fiber tend to be leaner, while more research is required in this area. Researchers analyzed two groups: one that was regarded to be normal weight and the other that was thought to be obese. They discovered that the normal-weight group consumed more fiber than the obese group.
Dr Garth Davis, bariatric surgeon and former protein enthusiast, is an expert on the fact that we should focus on fiber as our mainstay in the diet for long-term health and weight management. You may lose weight with protein initially, but is this sustainable through a life-time? His book ProteinAholic lays it out beautifully.
● It helps to increase lifespan
People who consumed adequate total fiber, which includes both soluble and insoluble fibers, had a decreased risk of dying from any cause, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to a 2022 review in the Journal of Translational Medicine. (can I get another ‘woohoo’?)
Do I have to swallow sawdust like supplements?
Short answer…no you don’t. There is an array of delicious options: whole-grain foods, fruits, vegetables, legumes like beans and peas, nuts, and seeds are all healthy options. And all of these foods are high in quality protein.
Foods that have been refined or processed tend to be lower in fiber, such as canned fruits and vegetables, pulp-free juices, white bread and pasta, and non-whole-grain cereals. The removal of the grain's bran during the grain-refining process reduces the amount of fiber in the grain. After processing, certain B vitamins and iron are reintroduced back to enriched foods, but not fiber.
Eating foods with fiber added, such as cereal, granola bars, yogurt, and ice cream, is another approach to increasing your intake of fiber. Typically, the extra fiber is identified as "inulin" or "chicory root". Following the consumption of foods with increased fiber, some people experience gassiness. However, if dietary adjustments are insufficient for certain people or if they suffer from problems like constipation, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome, they may still require a fiber supplement. Before taking fiber supplements, consult with your medical professional.
In general, whole foods are preferable to fiber supplements. The variety of fibers, vitamins, minerals, and other helpful nutrients that are present in foods are simply not present in fiber supplements.
You may increase your chances of getting the quantity of fiber your body needs to function properly and minimize your risk of disease by eating a well-rounded, balanced diet that contains lots of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. Ayurveda stresses plenty of fresh, local and seasonal produce whenever possible, on a foundation of whole grains and lentils. These foods provide the protein your body requires, while focusing on fiber-rich foods like beans, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. In other words, if you focus on getting lots of fiber, you will get more than enough protein. Win win!