Dietary fiber is indigestible plant material with important prebiotic properties and visible benefits on blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, weight loss and transit time. The average person’s minimum dietary fiber intake is estimated at around 14 g of dietary fiber for every 1000 kcal. Both soluble and insoluble fiber should be consumed for best benefits and the dietary sources such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains are preferred to fiber supplements. Meat, dairy and fish do not contain dietary fiber.
What is dietary fiber? Dietary fiber is plant material we cannot digest, but can eat. Fiber is actually a type of carbohydrate, but with special properties that make it indigestible. Although it is a type of carbohydrate, it is not considered a nutrient-proper because it does not provide energy to the body and thus does not help it live and grow like fats, protein, other carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients do. However, its direct action of the gastrointestinal tract, the digestion process and nutrient absorption make it vital for good health, meaning it is a functional dietary element.
What is dietary fiber good for? Dietary fiber contributes to the health of the gastrointestinal tract, enhances the digestion process, generates fermentation and feeds the good bacteria in our intestines, reduces the intestinal absorption of fats, regulates blood sugar levels, encourages weight loss, relieves constipation and prevents hemorrhoids. Its beneficial action on the digestive system engenders benefits on the cardiovascular system, improves energy levels and metabolism.
Dietary fiber types and examples
Different types of dietary fiber have different benefits, hence the reason you need to know which type does what. Here is how fiber is classified:
1) Soluble fiber. Soluble dietary fiber is indigestible plant material that dissolves in water and ferments. Soluble fiber becomes gel-like. Pectin is a type of soluble dietary fiber and it’s found in generous amounts in the peel of citrus fruit, pears, apples and plums. It’s pectin that allows for jams, marmalade and other preserves from these fruits to bind so good, thicken and make great desserts. Pectin is also good for treating both diarrhea and constipation naturally.
2) Insoluble fiber. Insoluble dietary fiber is indigestible plant material that does not dissolve in water and ferments poorly. Inulin is an example of insoluble fiber and it’s found mostly in plant roots and underground stems. Bananas, chicory, burdock root, Jerusalem artichokes, onions and garlic are all great sources of inulin. Inulin is a natural prebiotic, meaning it feeds the bacteria living in our digestive tract.
What are the benefits of dietary fiber?
Considering it passes through the digestive tract only, dietary fiber has a beneficial action primarily on the gastrointestinal tract. However, taking into account that what, how and how much of what we eat we actually absorb at the intestinal level dictates numerous other aspects of our health, our daily dietary fiber intake impacts our cardiovascular, nervous system and even immune system health and especially energy metabolism. Here are 9 strong reasons why you should eat enough fiber:
1) Treats constipation. Soluble fiber absorbs water while it passes through the intestinal tract. This adds bulk to stools and prevents them from being both too hard and dry and too soft and loose. In other words, it prevents constipation and diarrhea. Insoluble fiber improves transit time, meaning digested food doesn’t stay for too long in the digestive tract, which helps relieve constipation.
2) Good for hemorrhoids. Constipation is one of the main causes of hemorrhoids. Stools that are too hard or too dry to pass as well as having bowel movements infrequently or simply too few often means you are constipated. And this can lead to the development of hemorrhoids. Soluble fiber helps you achieve soft stools that are easy to pass, while insoluble fiber regulates transit time and can help you have bowel movements as often as two or three times a day.
3) Natural prebiotic properties. Both soluble and insoluble fiber have prebiotic properties, meaning they feed the bacteria in the intestines. And a healthy gut flora means better digestive health, better immunity and optimal nutrient absorption. Soluble fiber absorbs water and ferments, acting as a natural prebiotic. Some types of insoluble fiber like inulin also have prebiotic benefits.
4) Fiber helps you lose weight. Eating sufficient dietary fiber helps you feel full for longer which reduces hunger naturally and helps you lose weight. At the same time, most foods rich in dietary fiber are also rich in vitamins and minerals and nourish you and low in calories, which further helps with weight loss. Eating enough fiber can help you achieve a healthy weight and prevent obesity and health problems deriving from it.
5) Boosts energy levels. First of all, high-fiber foods are also rich in vitamins and dietary minerals which help boost energy metabolism and energy levels. For example, refined grains have significantly less nutrients and fiber than whole grains and fail to ensure constant energy from one meal to another. Secondly, by ensuring a healthy gut flora, fiber improves nutrient absorption, contributing to improved energy levels. This is because the bacteria found naturally in our intestinal tract breaks down food, forming by-products that help not only absorb nutrients like fats, iron and magnesium, but also produce vitamin K and B vitamins like vitamin B12 and vitamin B9, all essential for elevated energy levels.
6) Lowers cholesterol and blood pressure. Fiber helps digestion in many ways and one of those ways is by regulating the absorption of nutrients like lipids, or fats. Soluble fiber binds to fats like cholesterol, preventing them from being absorbed at the intestinal levels. This indirectly contributes to less fats circulating freely in our blood and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, supporting cardiovascular health. Low cholesterol levels means a lower risk of fat buildup in the arteries which could lead to other problems like high blood pressure.
7) Regulates blood sugar levels. Fiber, weight gain, obesity and diabetes are all connected afflictions. Eating enough dietary fiber prevents blood sugar spikes because it regulates digestion so that sugars from food are absorbed steadily into the bloodstream. This prevents insulin resistance and reduces the risk of diabetes. Moreover, because fiber has weight loss benefits and high-fiber foods are not rich in calories, there is a lower risk of obesity.
8) Good for diarrhea. Fiber can be good for both constipation and diarrhea. Pectin is a soluble type that not only adds bulk to stools by absorbing water, but also prevents stools from being too loosely formed, thus relieving watery diarrhea.
9) Better immunity. Gut bacteria is vital for good immunity. In our digestive tract there are special patches of immune system tissue that produce antibodies to counteract infection. And maintaining a healthy digestive tract helps keep everything working perfectly, including the part of immune system in our intestines. Also, the bacteria found naturally in our digestive system prevent other pathogenic bacteria from populating our digestive system and modulate immune system responses by regulating inflammation and antibody production.
Dietary fiber disadvantages and side effects. Dietary fiber is bad for you only if you eat too much. And considering most people eat too little of it anyway, the side effects are not common and mild. For example, eating too much fiber can cause loose stools, watery stools or diarrhea, gas, bloating, abdominal cramps or discomfort.
Dietary fiber is edible material in plant food sources that the human body cannot break down and absorb. There are two main types of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble, and most foods usually contain both, in varying amounts. What makes dietary fiber good for you is its beneficial action on the digestive system, helping regulate the digestion process and nutrient absorption, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, boosting energy levels and feeding gut bacteria for perfect digestive health.