“Eat your muffin, it’s full of bran—it will make you move.” I’m not sure which was more bothersome at 14, eating the dry, flavorless muffin being presented to me or having Grandma June get into a goofy discussion on bowel movements with me. Being around lots of elders, I was accustomed to what would come next if I didn’t eat the muffin. I could live without another lecture. Thankfully, I found ways to get the benefits of fiber into my diet without the torture of bland foods.
As a practitioner of Asian medicine, Amma Therapy and holistic nutrition, I am continually amazed at how simple dietary shifts can have the most profound effects on client’s conditions – whether young or old. Fiber is one of the simplest things clients can add to their diet and create better digestive and overall health. Fiber is also a primary recommendation in the treatment of diseases like diabetes, IBS, Crohn’s and obesity, and trendy diets that leave out fiber rich foods may be contributing to the overall decline of colon and rectal health in our society. It may be too soon to tell just yet, but I do know that most Americans don’t get enough fiber. So watch out for fashionable diets that curb or eliminate fibrous foods rich in complex carbohydrates like whole grains, lentils, legumes and vegetables which are vital for colon health.
What is fiber?
Simply put, fiber is nature’s laxative and is the substance matter of plants that isn’t broken down by the body during digestion. It comes from the leaves, stems, seeds and secretions of plants and it’s essential for colon health. If you aren’t eating plants your colon will suffer.
What health benefits does fiber offer?
Although fiber doesn’t provide the body with energy, it is an essential nutrient for digestion and overall health. It adds bulk to the stools, absorbs excess water and softens the stools to make elimination of waste and toxins easier. But wait, there’s more! Fiber also:
- Protects your intestines and keeps them working comfortably to help move toxins and fecal matter out of the system
- Prevents constipation and hemorrhoids
- Absorbs excess moisture from the stools, reducing diarrhea
- Reduces the risk of cancers, especially colon cancer
- Reduces the risk and impact of diabetes by slowing glucose absorption to help regulate blood sugar – yes, you read that right – fiber helps regulate blood sugar
- Treats and prevents bowel disorders including: IBS, Crohn’s disease & diverticulitis
- Creates bulk in diet making you feel fuller, therefore aiding in weight loss
- Manages and lowers blood cholesterol levels
Where do you find fiber?
Fiber is found in whole, vegetable foods such as – nuts, seeds, lentils, legumes, whole grains (with the bran), vegetables and fruits. If you’ve ever made jelly you have likely worked with pectin. Pectin is a soluble fiber found in the peel of fruits including apples and pears and gives jelly its texture. Most of the fiber in fruits and vegetable is found in the skins – so don’t peel your fruits unless they have been sprayed with pesticides or you have a condition that doesn’t allow you to eat seeds, peels and skins.
There are two forms of fiber –
Soluble Fibers – Soluble fibers mostly come from plant cell walls like apple and pear pectins (yep, the same stuff that gives jelly its texture), gums, aloe, mucilages and algals. They dissolve in water in the intestinal tract. This process helps to delay transit time through the GI tract and regulates your blood sugar by slowing absorption of glucose and lowers cholesterol.
Insoluble Fiber – Insoluble fiber, like bran, is “scratchy” plant matter that adds bulk to increases fecal weight to produce bowel movements, slows starch and glucose absorption. You may have seen these forms of fiber called ‘roughage’ in old text and cook books. Roughage acts like a nature loofa or scrubby, gently cleaning out your intestines while the soluable fibers then moisten and nourish the colon lining.
Asian (Chinese) medicine’s perspective on fiber
Classical Asian food energetics and nutrition view foods very differently than Western nutrition. Where Western nutrition looks for the part of the food that creates a certain result, Asian nutrition looks at the energetic functionality of the food as a whole. Does it heat? Does it cool the body? Does it dry? Does it moisten? To treat with Asian medicine and nutrition, we look at each individual client’s pattern based on Asian medicine assessment. For example, five clients may come in the with same complaint of constipation, but they will likely leave with different assessments and recommendations. One may need more Yin and moistening foods to move the bowels. One may have Colon Qi deficiency, another might have heat in the Colon, or Liver Qi patterns that are causing the problems. Aloe, which can be beneficial in treating constipation, may be perfect for the client with heat in the Colon but too cold and harsh for a client with Yang deficiency. The focus of Asian medicine is to find the root cause of the pattern while treating the symptom and that means we need to look at each individual.
How much fiber do you need a day?
The average American eats about 10-13 grams of fiber a day, that’s almost 1/2 of the daily recommendation – yikes! Today’s Standard American Diet (SAD) is heavy on refined and processed foods and full of meat products – foods that are nutrient dead and often void of fiber. Or swinging to the other side of the pendulum, we may have people who are eating a highly restrictive diet that cuts out particular categories of whole foods like complex carbohydrates.
The current adequate intake (AI) is
- Children 4-8: 25 grams/day
- Girls 9-13: 26 grams/day
- Boys 9-13: 31 grams/day
- Adults: 38-40 grams/day
- Adults over 50: 22 grams/day
Having more than 50 grams a day of fiber is not recommended.
How to get more fiber into your diet
- Try to eat 5-7 servings of vegetables and 1-3 servings of whole grains daily.
- Gradually increase your intake – about 5 grams a day. If you have no idea of how much fiber you usually eat, track your diet for a week. There are many online sites like Calorie Counter that can be very helpful in tracking your fiber. Be cautious though, if you add too much fiber too quickly it can cause gas and bloating.
- Eat seaweed! Seaweed has a wonderfully high fiber content, averaging about 32-56% of its it dry matter.
- Try your next baking project with coconut flour – it’s gluten free and marvelously high in fiber.
- Use chia seeds or teff (a weensie little grain) to thicken gravy, soups and pudding.
- Eat more whole grains like teff, amaranth, quinoa and millet. Rices and grains that have been hulled have much of their bran removed. If you need to avoid gluten, check out gluten free grains.
- Leave on the skin! Most vegetables and fruits horde their fiber in their skins. Eat fruits (apples, pears, etc) and vegetables (cucumber, potatoes, etc) with their skins intact unless they’ve been sprayed with pesticides or shellacked with wax.
- Add lentils and legumes into your diet. If you do not frequently eat them, add them slowly. You may also want to take a digestive enzyme or eat live enzyme foods when you are eating beans until your system adjusts.
- Add in dips like hummus or white bean dips into your diet.
- Water please! Drink at least 6 to 8 glasses per day, to help move the fiber through your system. The exception would be if you have a very water or fluid dense diet – as in you eat a lot vegetables, soups or steamed foods. A person who eats a lot of dried or dehydrated food may actually need to increase their fluid intake.
- Spice it up! Dried herbs and spices are packed with fiber. 1 T of cinnamon boasts 4.2 grams of fiber; rosemary, savory and other spices aren’t far behind.
- Eat a sweet potato or squash with your breakfast. I have one client that swears by just having a cup of squash with her breakfast to keep her regular.
- Eat fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and miso. Read more on probiotic foods.
Here’s to your health!