Nutrition leafy green plants with fiber

Published on May 9th, 2013 | by Joe Starks


Know Your Substances: Fiber

Every day we get bombarded with information about dietary fiber and what a miraculous substance it is supposed to be. The whole fuss seems a bit over the top and it is indeed true that marketing drives a lot of the hype around fiber. So what is dietary fiber really? Why has the interest in it only risen recently? Do we all need it in the same amounts? These are extremely important questions if you care about maintaining your health and not falling for nutrition scams. Many things have been said about different substances which ended up not being true, so let’s look at the facts around fiber here and now.

What is dietary fiber?

If you ever wondered what the biggest difference between us and a real herbivore is, here is a clue: humans can’t digest the largest part of leafy green plants. We actually only get very little from plants when it comes to quantity and this is why they have so few calories for us humans. A cow for instance gets a lot more calories from hay than you ever could. Simply put, we can’t digest plants in their entirety and instead we only take a few micronutrients from them, like vitamins and minerals. Most of the parts we can’t digest from plants are what we call dietary fiber.

There are two types of dietary fiber:

  • Soluble, which gathers water and makes us feel fuller for longer as it only slowly releases nutrients
  • Insoluble, which adds bulk to our stools and helps prevent constipation

This means that dietary fiber is seemingly a useless substance to our body, which we only ingest to get the good minerals and vitamins, right? Wrong! Dietary fiber is one of the few substances we actually need, not because it becomes part of our bodies through metabolism, but because it actually removes a lot of waste from inside us.

Our bowels empty when the contents become bulky enough to press against the walls of the colon. If your food only contains useful nutrients this might take a while, causing the contents of the bowel to dry out. When that happens you get constipated, meaning you will get rid of waste less often and you are in danger of injuring your colon and anus because the feces are too hard. These injuries are one of the reasons bad diet is linked to colon cancer and bowel health in general.

When you ingest a good amount of fiber, it adds bulk to the contents of your bowels, meaning you will pass your stools more often. Feces get digested by bacteria when they are inside us, meaning that the longer they stay within the more toxins will exist in our body.

However, this does not mean that the more you go to the toilet the better your bowel health is. Thrice a week and up to once a day is considered regular when it comes to defecating. Anything more than that is probably diarrhea and can be hazardous to your health. Fiber should not be ingested in large quantities by people who have diarrhea as it can worsen the symptoms. Diarrhea will cause you to lose important nutrients from your food, which can lead to even worse diseases, even death in extreme occasions.

A good way to see if you have diarrhea is to judge the consistency of your stool with the Bristol Stool chart. There are people that are naturally a bit more regular than the average without being ill.

Why has the interest for Fiber only risen recently?

In medieval times fruit was actually forbidden for children to consume, because people back then could not tell apart a diarrhea caused by pathogens from a loose stool caused by fruit and vegetable consumption. This means that for a long while people thought that fruit were potentially dangerous for our health. Only recently in human history did we found out that it was fiber that loosened those stools and not a dangerous, life-threatening disease.

With that discovery came another one, which was that fruit and vegetables actually contain a lot of nutrients, like vitamins, we absolutely need to live long and healthy lives.

When vitamin supplements hit the market something new and even more exciting was discovered. Taking a supplement pill did not offer all the health benefits of eating your 5 a day. Scientists were puzzled since they knew that humans can’t digest fiber, but only fiber could be the missing link which causes fruit and vegetables to be superior to vitamin pills. So we discovered that fiber actually benefits us in its own way by assisting our bowel movement. All that is pretty recent and if you add to that the pretty modern bowel cancer studies you have your answer why the fiber hype is such a recent event.

Do we all need the same amount of fiber?

No, actually we do not. Some of us need a lot while others can virtually do without. There are people that have such sensitive bowels that they do not need fiber to be regular, in contrary fiber might cause diarrhea to those people depriving them of important nutrients. Other people have a terrible problem when they try to become regular. These people might actually need more fiber than the average person to regulate their stools.

It all comes down to individual needs. After all, fiber is not the only agent that regulates defecation. Water intake and the balance of the rest of your diet are equally important. The best is to “listen” to your body’s needs. When you are constipated, eat a bit more green stuff and when you have diarrhea cut down a bit.

Being regular means that you prevent many of the devastating bowel diseases people get in their fifties, so you can’t start early enough when it comes to adding the correct amount of fiber to your diet.

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