Dietary fiber is often mentioned whenever weight management, gut health, and proper diet are being discussed. If you haven’t been paying much attention though, you probably think that it’s just another health-boosting component of fruits and vegetables. Well, while that’s true, there’s so much more to it. It’s about time that you broaden your understanding – and to do that, you’ll just have to read on.
Consider the Basics
Because of its resistance to human enzymes, fiber can’t be digested and absorbed by the small intestine. Instead, it passes through the large intestine where it undergoes partial or complete fermentation. Although fiber doesn’t provide energy, it provides various benefits. For one, it supports the gut’s natural microflora, meaning it helps prevent intestinal infections. Weight loss can also be experienced with its incorporation in the diet. Furthermore, it has lipid-lowering properties as well as cancer protective functions.
Fibre has two classifications based on water solubility:
- Soluble Fibre
This type swells in water and creates a gel-like material once inside the digestive system. Pectin’s, gums, and mucilage are among those classified as soluble.
- Insoluble Fibre
People often refer to this type as “roughage”. This comprises the lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose, which come from the structural parts of plants. The stalks, seeds, and skins of plants usually contain this tough matter that water cannot dissolve.
Sources and Choices
Food products can contain either soluble or insoluble fiber or both. Grains are a major source of fiber. Wheat, sorghum (jowar), barley, rye, corn, pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), oats, kidney beans (rajma), chickpea (channa), lentils, soya bean and cowpea are some good examples. The harvested seed of the grain plant is referred to as the kernel, which has three parts – bran, endosperm, and germ. The bran holds a majority of the fiber. Before you shop for grains, however, you need to familiarize yourself with its two types.
Products that contain the bran, germ, and endosperm are considered whole grain. Whole grains are a great source of fiber since the bran is intact. Whole wheat, oatmeal, rye, barley, and corn are examples of whole grain. While these usually have a distinct colour, checking that detail alone won’t be enough if you really wish to make sure that you’re getting whole grain goods – you’ll have to spend time reading nutrition labels. Checking reviews and online discussions should also help in ensuring that you’re getting a whole grain product.
The removal of both bran and germ in the process of milling produces refined grain in the form of flour or meal, which has a longer shelf life and finer texture compared to whole grain. However, the removal of some key nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, and fiber also happens due to milling. To compensate for this, most refined grains undergo enrichment to return the lost iron and B vitamins. But this does not include the lost fiber because otherwise, the fine texture and long shelf life will be compromised.
Besides the grains, fruits and vegetables are good sources of fiber. Apple and guava are rich in pectin which is a soluble fiber. Green leafy vegetables, root & tubers (carrot, radish, beetroot, sweet potato, colocasia, yam), plantain, cluster beans, peas, dates, guava, pear, sapota (chikoo), wood apple are good sources of insoluble fiber.
Main Dietary Roles
Now that you know which foods to choose, it’s time to discuss the roles of fiber in greater detail. As mentioned, fiber helps beneficial gut microbes, keeping them healthy and boosting their capacity to fight off harmful invaders. Aside from giving you healthy digestion, your natural gut bacteria actually help protect you from anxiety and depression. Of course, those are not the only things that can be gained from a high fiber diet.
Weight management, specifically weight loss, is another advantage. A high fiber diet provides bulk despite being low calorie. Due to this, the person feels full and tends to consume lesser calories than usual during a meal. Moreover, fiber keeps you full for a longer time thus delaying your subsequent meal. If you make it a point to include some amount of fiber every meal, you are not likely to overeat during any meal.
Fibre can delay or slow the absorption of sugar, meaning it helps in keeping blood sugar at appropriate levels. This can prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. Those already suffering from it can maintain their blood glucose levels within normal ranges by including sufficient amount of fiber in the diet. Maintaining your blood glucose level is the key to prevent the complications of diabetes such as heart diseases, glaucoma, diabetic foot and so on.
Another thing that it can do is lower blood cholesterol. Fibre binds to the fat and cholesterol in the foods and helps in their excretion. Fibre also binds bile (bile is made from cholesterol) and aids in its excretion. This is an indirect way of removing cholesterol from the body. Because of the resulting improvement in lipid profile, heart disease can be prevented.
- Prevents Cancer
Fibre also serves a cancer protective role in colon. Fibre can bind the harmful carcinogens and render them useless. As mentioned earlier, fiber is not digested and undergoes fermentation in the colon. During the process of fermentation certain acids are formed which retard the survival of carcinogens. As a result of fermentation, healthy bacteria thrive in the colon and preserve its health.
- Prevents Constipation
Fibre increases the bulk i.e. the amount of waste and helps ease its movement through the gut. Fibre absorbs water, enlarges and softens the waste products. This helps in the prevention of constipation.
Owing to its capacity to absorb water and its bulking properties, soluble fiber can be used in treating loose stools and diarrhea. Regular consumption of fiber also helps in prevention of conditions such as ulcers, haemorrhoids as well as diverticular disease.
Food items loaded with fiber must be consumed with variety in mind. This helps ensure that getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals won’t be sacrificed whenever you’re taking the gut-healthy fiber through dietary means. Variety in food choices becomes even more important once you take into account that high fiber diets result in reduced absorption of minerals – and yes, it can cause a nutrient deficiency.
As explained earlier, you have to choose whole grains over refined ones because the former’s fiber content is much higher. What about supplementation? Well, fiber from dietary sources is generally preferred – after all, this ensures that you’re getting other macros- and micronutrients as well. The simple addition of 2 – 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits to your daily diet, together with beans and grains, should suffice in meeting your daily fiber needs. Make it a point to use different grains, vegetables, and fruits every day. Use all the colors of fruits and vegetables.
Take note that the increase in fiber intake must be done gradually because otherwise it will make you feel bloated and could even trigger stomach cramps. A gradual process gives your digestive system time to adjust to your healthier diet. Despite the numerous benefits and advantages of fiber, bear in mind that a high fiber diet may not work properly unless fluids are taken at regular and frequent intervals. Not having enough fluids will ultimately result in abdominal discomfort and bowel movement problems. Consume at least 1.5 to 2 L of water every day.
Your daily dose of fiber will thus keep you healthy and disease-free.