Sometimes having a rough morning can be a good thing—that is if the roughage is coming from your foods. Beginning every day with some fiber is a great way to get your digestive tract up to speed and help lead to better health outcomes that will let you thrive in the long run. But what exactly does it do for the body and where are the best natural sources? Let us explain.
Getting to know fiber
Dietary fiber is a type of carbohydrate from plant sources, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, that the body can’t digest. While this may sound unideal, it’s actually a very good thing and a very useful source of food. The job of fiber is to keep food moving through the intestinal tract, taking toxins and waste along with it. As fiber moves from the stomach to the small intestine to the colon, these discardable elements will cling to it, absorbing water as it goes, and resulting in regular bowel movements.
There are two types of fiber, called soluble and insoluble:
Soluble fiber can’t be fully digested, but can be broken down a bit. This type of fiber will dissolve in water, becoming more gelatinous as it moves through the digestive system. It also takes longer to digest, so eating more soluble fiber leads to feeling fuller for longer. Some foods that have a good concentration of soluble fiber include blueberries, oatmeal, apples, beans, and nuts.
Insoluble fiber can’t be broken down at all. It moves through the digestive tract without changing its shape until it’s excreted. Insoluble fiber is found in several vegetables, including bell peppers, onions, cabbage, and lettuce.
How fiber benefits the body
High-fiber diets are vital in keeping the digestive system, and overall body, healthy. Here’s how:
- Keeping bowel health normal and making bowel movements regular— Fiber compacts waste into the right size and weight to help it pass easily. This reduces this risk of constipation and hemorrhoids.
- Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels— Because soluble fiber takes longer to digest, it slows the rate in which sugar is absorbed into the blood. That prevents blood sugar spikes and improves overall blood sugar levels, which is especially important for people with diabetes.
- Preventing heart disease and lowering cholesterol— Another job of fiber is to bind with bile in the intestines. Bile contains cholesterol, which gets excreted along with the fiber. Lower levels of cholesterol reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Helping stabilize weight— Foods with high fiber content make the stomach feel full faster, leading to a decrease in calorie intake, which is an essential component of weight loss and maintenance.
- Improving the immune system— Soluble fiber has been shown to speed up recovery time from bacterial infections, making sure cells have the anti-inflammatory properties needed to battle infection.
- Controlling the acidity level in intestines— Insoluble fiber helps control the acidity, or pH, of the intestines, which stabilizes the environment and leads to less gastrointestinal reflux.
What happens when there’s not enough fiber
Most people don’t get enough fiber—in fact, less than three percent of Americans get the daily recommended amount, which is roughly 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women 50 years of age and younger, according to the Mayo Clinic. Those numbers decrease to 30 grams for men and 21 grams for women, aged 50 and older.
Though it’s not hard to discern when your diet is lacking the adequate amounts. These signs are telltale clues that it’s time to amp up your daily fiber intake:
- Weight gain— Fiber helps the body feel full after a meal. Without the right amount of it, you will probably still feel hungry and want to continue eating, which can lead to adding on the pounds.
- Constipation or irregular bowel movements— Not eating enough fiber is one of the main causes of constipation. Fewer than three bowel movements per week is a sign of constipation, as is hard or dry stools.
- Nausea and fatigue— Feeling weak, sick, and tired are all symptoms of a fiber deficiency. Not eating enough vegetables is usually the culprit; see if adding more in your diet helps with the symptoms. If not, you might want to consult with your doctor about other underlying issues.
- Hemorrhoids— Sometimes as a result of constipation, hemorrhoids can occur when stools aren’t soft and going to the bathroom requires straining. Eating more fiber-rich foods will help reduce both of these risks.
Not getting enough fiber can lead to some very uncomfortable side effects. But, loading up on fiber-rich foods every day can help to keep these symptoms away.
Where to find natural sources of fiber
Luckily, fiber is plentiful and readily available. Making sure to get the right amount is half the battle: Remember, women should eat 25 grams per day, while men should eat 38 grams per day. You can fill that daily quota by chowing down on foods like:
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans
- Pinto beans
- Whole grains
Fiber supplements are also an option. Sold in forms like chewable tablets, capsules, and powders, fiber supplements have “functional fiber,” or fiber that’s been created in a lab or taken from foods and dissolved into a new format.
The Mayo Clinic cautions people to watch how much fiber they’re getting with these supplements, though, since consuming too much too quickly can lead to excessive gas and bloating and other uncomfortable side effects.
If you want to stick to the natural route, there are a number of healthy swaps and alterations that can help you get more fiber into every meal. For example:
- Eat more whole grain cereals for breakfast, including oatmeal.
- Swap out meat for different kinds of beans a few times per week; you can do so in soups, stews, chili, on salads, or mashed into black bean burgers, for example, or these chickpea patties for sandwiches.
- Ditch fruit juices for a piece of whole fruit (and keep the skin on since a good amount of fiber is concentrated here).
- Skip the chips when it comes to your afternoon snack, and opt for raw vegetables instead.
- Replace white bread, pasta, and rice with whole grain alternatives.
While fresh veggies and fruit are still the go-to when it comes to getting the right amount of fiber, there are other convenient options to supplement each meal and provide healthy snacks.
Rich in antioxidants and dietary fiber, this yummy snack bar is a great way to start the day or get ready for the gym. Almonds, blueberries, and cashews combine for a sweet and crunchy treat that keeps blood sugar regulated and the digestive system healthy.
Great for baking, cooking, or blending into a shake or smoothie, this fiber powder enhances the nutrient value of everyday foods without adding a medicinal taste or grainy texture. This powder is a natural soluble fiber that dissolves completely, leaving no trace behind—just a healthier meal.
Spectrum Essentials Chia and Flaxseeds Decadent Blend, Coconut and Cacao
Rich chocolate with creamy coconut that’s loaded with both fiber and healthy omega-3 fatty acids—what could be better? This delightful snack is a great way to enhance oatmeal, pancakes, pudding, yogurt, smoothies, and baked goods, while keeping their same great taste.
Feeling a bit more hands-on? Try out this Carrot Cake Oatmeal recipe for breakfast (or dessert). This oatmeal is thick and spicy, more like a cake than porridge. It has whole grain oats that provide some fiber while ginger adds some spice and carrots and raisins give it sweetness, so it’s a treat you’ll want to enjoy all day long.
If savory’s the flavor of choice, go with a side of Garlic-Parmesan Roasted Broccoli for lunch or dinner. With broccoli that’s both crisp and tender, this smoky dish is amazing for a fiber-filled meal. Give it a little heat with some red pepper flakes and a good dose of parmesan cheese for even more flavor.
With so many delicious options, it should be easy to find ways to fit more fiber into your everyday diet. And your body will thank you.