A Nutritionist Explains: The Best Sources of Dietary Fiber (and Why You Need It!)

At this time of year when people tend to make changes or put new, healthier habits on the forefront, I always encourage people to go for more instead of less. More vegetables, more protein, more healthy fats…

Protein and healthy fats have had their turn in the sun; I think in 2018 we should be talking about fiber! This mega important part of our food and wellness doesn’t get discussed nearly enough, and I think it’s time to change that.

Dietary fiber, otherwise known as “roughage” are undigestible long-chain carbohydrates that, since we can’t digest them, take the trip through our entire digestive tract from entry to exit, if you know what I mean. But if we can’t digest fiber, what’s the point of eating more of it?

Glad you asked!

There are two basic types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water, whereas insoluble fiber does not. An easy demonstration of this is adding water to some ground flax seeds or a bowl of oats. If you let it sit for a while, you’ll see the water has absorbed and you’re left with a sort of gloopy gel–that’s soluble fiber in action. On the other hand if you added water to a bowl of wheat bran, which is pure insoluble fiber, it wouldn’t get absorbed.

Both soluble and insoluble fiber play an important role for our overall health.

What is insoluble fiber?

Insoluble fiber, since it doesn’t absorb water, is truly what we’re talking about when we use the word roughage. Insoluble fiber helps slow down digestion, since our digestive tracts have to work to move it through. It helps keep you feeling full for longer, and it helps to moderate the uptake of sugar into your blood stream, thus keeping blood sugar levels stable.

Since it moves through your digestive tract intact, insoluble fiber is also a sort of “janitorial crew” in our intestines. It sloughs off dead cells, effectively sweeping things along and out, which also help us to absorb nutrients better. Insoluble fiber helps to improve constipation, fecal incontinence (it can work both ways) and can reduce or alleviate symptoms associated with hemorrhoids.

Good sources of insoluble fiber

Fruits and vegetables are great sources of insoluble fiber (especially the peel, which is why it’s a good idea to leave the skin on apples, carrots, and potatoes), and whole grains such as brown rice, wheat berries, rye, kamut, and spelt. In general, processed and refined foods have been stripped of insoluble fiber, and whole foods have the fiber intact. If you ever do any juicing, that’s a whole lot of insoluble fiber you end up tossing out at the end.

What is soluble fiber?

Soluble fiber, though it absorbs water, is still not broken down in our digestive tract. It plays an equally important role, though, as soluble fiber binds to cholesterol particles and removes them from the body, which helps to reduce overall blood cholesterol levels and therefore the risk of heart disease. The soluble fiber in oats is particularly good for this.

Soluble fiber also helps keep blood sugar stable, and since it absorbs water as it passes through your system, it helps keep your stools in good shape and protects against constipation and diarrhea. In fact, most fiber supplements (such as Metamucil) contain mostly soluble fiber.

Good sources of soluble fiber

Good sources of soluble fiber include oats, nuts, seeds, beans, apples, and berries.

You need both soluble and insoluble fiber as an important part of a healthy diet. The American Dietetic Association recommends between 20-35grams per day of overall dietary fiber, and the average American gets only about 14grams. Time to change that number! The good news is that this is relatively easy to accomplish by focusing on plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans and legumes, and healthy whole grains.

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