I am sure almost all of you have heard of fiber but may not be sure exactly what it is. The most common definition is that fiber is essentially a starch (found in plants, beans, legumes) that cannot be digested by the enzymes in our small colon (1). We cannot break down fiber. Japan has a more encompassing definition, labeling fiber as all indigestible materials regardless of whether they are carbohydrate, fat or protein (1). Now that you know what fiber is I will tell you about the amazing effects fiber has on disease prevention and colon health. Let’s first discuss the two types of dietary fiber found in plants: soluble and insoluble fiber.
Soluble and Insoluble Fiber
Water soluble, or simply soluble fiber, is believed to work primarily in the upper gut, where it slows down digestion and absorption, making it very helpful for people with diabetes and those who have weight issues. Because digestion and absorption are slowed down, diabetics can eat foods and not have a drastic spike in blood sugar. Water insoluble, or simply insoluble fiber, tends to act more in the lower gut where it helps create bulky stools which aid in producing regular and smooth bowel movements. Most plant foods contain a mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber, so I would not obsess over how much of either one you are getting. Nature assured we will get a good mixture of both.
Role of Bacteria in our Colon
Fermentation- metabolic process that converts sugars to acids, gases or alcohol. Process used to brew beer
Gut Microbiota- all of the various bacteria living together in our colon- we have between 300-1000 different bacteria species
How is fiber digested in our body since we are not capable of breaking it down? Luckily, we have the little guys to thank. Our colon is full of good bacteria that are able to ferment fiber. I know most people hear the word bacteria and think of disease but the bacteria in our colon offer us numerous health benefits from the fermentation of fiber. When soluble fiber is fermented, short chain fatty acids are produced. A few health benefits associated with short chain fatty acids include: stabilizing blood glucose levels, suppressing cholesterol production by the liver, reducing blood levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides and improving the barrier protection of the lining in our colon.
One of the unfortunate side effects of this fermentation is gas, but your body adjusts after a few weeks of eating a high fiber diet. Intestinal health is increased, our colons microbiota is renewed and there is a reduction of intestinal inflammation all achieved through the fermentating effects of dietary fiber (2). Fiber appears able to alter the bacteria (microbiota) of the colon for the better.
How fiber works in our body- lowering cholesterol and removing carcinogens
Bile Acids- promote digestion and absorption of dietary fat (including cholesterol) and may have hormonal effects on our body
It has been suggested that dietary fiber may absorb carcinogens (substances that cause cancer) and remove them from the body before they have a chance to initiate cancer (3). Fiber may also remove secondary bile acids which are thought to be tumor promoters. Bile Salts are bound by plant fibers (1). As fiber intake is increased, bile salt lost through fecal matter is also increased (1). This may reduce cholesterol as bile acids are made of cholesterol and their excretion would lower the amount of cholesterol in our blood.
A 2003 study which added barley to the diet of subjects found that the addition of barley to the diet lowered plasma total cholesterol, plasma LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowered triglycerides (2). Fiber may also soak up estrogens and remove them from the body. Excess estrogen, which is a hormone, has been linked to cancer development.
Fiber may help with weight loss. High fiber foods typically have a high volume with few calories and can help promote fullness and decrease hunger. Fiber may help lower LDL Cholesterol (the bad type of cholesterol) by absorbing it and expelling it from the body in feces. Clinical studies have shown that LDL cholesterol can be decreased through intake of soluble dietary fiber (3).
Fiber moves stools
It has been proposed since as early as the 1970s that high fiber diets tend to move fecal matter along relatively quick. The faster fecal matter moves along the colon, the less of a chance of carcinogenic (cancer causing) interaction with the colonic mucosa (4). Basically, the less time fecal matter remains in our body the less time it has to turn into something that causes disease. On the opposite end, low fiber diets would cause fecal matter to move slowly through the colon, thereby drying up and causing constipation. It was also proposed that slow movements of fecal matter may be related to higher rates of cancer.
Fibers relationship to colorectal cancer (CRC).
The literature on the relationship between dietary fiber and colorectal (colon) cancer was recently reviewed for the American Gastroenterological Association (4). The review concluded by saying that dietary fiber may offer protection against colorectal cancer, but that the daily fiber intake to offer this protection must be set much higher than it is in the intervention studies. Kim looked at the epidemiological evidence on the effect dietary fiber has on colorectal cancer. He concluded that there is an inverse relationship (as one variable goes up the other goes down) between dietary fiber and risk of colorectal cancer. Most case control studies on this issue have shown that the risk of colorectal cancer is closely linked to the amount of fiber one eats daily.
The European Prospective Investigation of Cancer and Nutrition – (EPIC) study involved ten European countries and looked at the associated between fiber intake and incidence of colorectal cancer in 519, 978 individuals aged 25-70 years of age (5). The results showed that high fiber intake was associated with reduced risk of colorectal cancer. Those with the lowest fiber intake had the highest incidence of colorectal cancer. (5). In the EPIC study a 13% lower colorectal cancer risk per 10g/day increase in total fiber intake was yielded (5). So for every 10 grams of fiber that you add to your diet, your risk of getting colorectal cancer is lowered by 13%.
The relationship between fiber, coronary heart disease and diabetes
Inversely- this means as one variable goes up (or increases) the other variable goes down (or decreases). In our example as fiber intake increased the risk of Coronary Heart Disease decreased-also meaning as fiber intake decreased risk of Coronary Heart Diseases increased
Glycemic Response- how much your blood sugar increases after a meal. The higher the glycemic response the more likely the food is to cause diabetes. Sweets like table sugar cause a drastic spike in blood sugar
Dietary fiber intake is inversely associated with risk of CHD –Coronary Heart Disease (6). In a pooled analysis of ten prospective cohort studies a 14% decrease in CHD risks for each 10g/day increase in dietary fiber and a 27% decrease in risk of coronary death were reported (6). High intake of cereal fiber has been shown to have a role in prevention of diabetes through its role in improving glycemic control (6). A study showed that fiber in oats and legumes significantly reduced glycemic response (6).
A study in Japan looked at the fiber intake in 86,000 Japanese subjects. (7). They looked at the relationship between fiber intake and Cardiovascular Disease- which for the purpose of this study was defined as stroke or Coronary Heart Disease. They found inverse associations between fiber intake and incidence of cardiovascular disease, stroke and other cerebral infraction (as fiber intake increased incidence of these events decreased) but not coronary heart disease (7). In prospective studies, fiber intake was inversely associated with blood pressure and hypertension- the more fiber eaten the better the blood pressure and hypertension became (7).
Why fiber supplements are not the same as eating whole plants
It appears that extracting fiber from the cell wall or part of the cell wall of plants is not the same as eating the whole plant. The components in cell walls are held together by crosslinks (8). Besides cellulose, these components are water insoluble when inside the cell wall but may be water soluble when extracted. As noted earlier, water soluble and water insoluble fiber behave differently in the body, so observing the properties of whole plant cell walls and extracted components of plant walls is very important.
Even though pectin preparations are extracted from plant cell walls, during their extraction they are chemically modified (8). Lignin preparations (another type of fiber), usually extracted from wood in a variety of different ways are sold commercially (8). The properties of these extracted lignin’s are likely very different from the properties of lignin’s still inside the intact cell wall (8). Properties of lignins also differ depending on their extraction methods (8). For all of the reasons talked about above, fiber extracted from the plant may behave quite differently in our bodies than fiber inside the walls of a whole plant.
My fiber recommendation
Most government organizations advise consuming 25-30 grams of fiber a day. The average American consumes about 11 grams a day. I believe we should get about 50 grams a day. Sounds impossible? Speaking from personal experience I have no problem getting close to 80 grams a day. But I tend to eat different than the average American so I am not the best example. The easiest way to increase fiber is to eat two servings of beans or lentils a day. Buy the dry bagged beans not the cans as the cans have way less fiber. Lentils have about 70 calories and 14-15 grams of fiber! So for 140 calories you get nearly 30 grams of fiber. Mix it with brown rice and you have 4 more grams. Eat a piece of fruit or two in the morning and you have 8 more grams. Make a smoothie with vegetables and fruit. Eat whole grain bread. Snack on fresh fruit throughout the day.
It really is not that hard if you replace your processed foods with fruits and vegetables. If someone is only getting 11 grams of fiber a day that means they are eating almost no plant foods which means they are missing out on all of the anti cancer, blood pressure lowering, etc. effects that plant foods have. Getting to 50 grams of fiber a day means much more than the fiber, it means that you are eating nutrient dense plant foods whose many health benefits far outweigh the benefits of their fiber. Plus, you will be having more regular bowel movements than you have ever had in your life. Some people in parts of Africa eat 100 grams of fiber a day, and there seems to be no negative effect on their bodies from eating this large amount.
I am sure you have guessed by now that I advocate getting fiber from food sources and not supplements. Part of this is because I believe that it may not just be the fiber in plant foods that offer all of these health benefits. It is possible that other chemicals in the plant are actually responsible for some of the health benefits. If you are unwilling to add plant foods into your diet taking a fiber supplement is better than nothing. I would go to a health food store and get psyllium husk. 100% psyillium husk with no other ingredients.
It has no taste but you can feel the texture. You can mix it with water or juice. When you first get it add a tsp to the water and see what happens. The fiber soaks up nearly all of the liquid until it becomes gel like. This shows why fiber is so effective at removing wastes and cholesterol from our body. This is also why you need to drink a glass of water with each serving of fiber. If you take a lot of fiber and do not drink water you will likely become constipated as the fiber has no water to soak up and thus no bulk to the stool so it leaves the body slower and the stool dries out. Start with a tsp or two a day. Give your body time to adjust.
Fiber, without a doubt, is one of my favorite nutrition topics to talk about. I actually wrote the bulk of this paper a few years ago just out of curiosity, but the original was much longer so I trimmed it down some for this blog. I know fiber is talked about but I feel like people largely neglect it. I do not subscribe to the idea of “super” foods (including supplements, vitamins, minerals, etc.) as I feel the overall diet is what matters, but if I did fiber would be up there.
With nutrition no topic goes undisputed. There are debates over every possible topic in nutrition. This is great. We need people to always question the foundations of nutrition. We can never be certain as there are always new studies and more advanced scientific methods coming out. Despite this, MOST, but not all, scientists would agree that fiber has been shown to: remove cholesterol from the body (mainly the bad cholesterol), offer control in blood sugar for diabetics, reduce risk of colon cancer, reduce risk of heart disease, move stools smoothly through the colon and remove excess hormones from the body.
While dietary fiber appears to have impressive health benefits, keep the big picture in mind, which is eating a varied and whole food diet has been shown to have anticancer effects, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and even reverse diabetes, and that we should emphasis the benefit of the whole plant instead of focusing on individual parts of it (sorry for the run on sentence/paragraph!)
Remember, animal foods will never have fiber as they don’t have cell walls that we are unable to digest. So the only way to increase fiber intake is to eat more plants or take a fiber supplement from a plant.
Below is a chart I made to show the fiber content of commonly eaten foods:
Foods Amount Fiber (grams)
|Pear w/skin||1 Medium||5.5|
|Brussels Sprouts||1 Cup||4.1|
|Sweet Corn||1 Cup||4|
|Baked Potato w/ skin||1 Small||3|
|Tomato Paste||1/4 Cup||2.7|
|Legumes, Nuts, Seeds|
|Cooked Lentils||1 Cup||15.6|
|Cooked Black Beans||1 Cup||15|
|Cooked Lima Beans||1 Cup||13.2|
|Vegetarian Baked Beans||1 Cup||10.4|
|Sunflower Seeds||1/4 Cup||3.9|
|Pistachio Nuts||49 nuts||2.9|
|Grains, Cereal, Pasta|
|Whole Wheat Pasta||1 cup||6.3|
|Bran Flakes||3/4 Cup||5.3|
|Instant Oatmeal||1 Cup||4|
|Popcorn Air Popped||3 Cups||3.5|
|Brown Rice||1 Cup||3.5|
|Whole Wheat Bread||1 Slice||1.9|
- Leeds, A. R., & Hussain, K. (1998). A review of the effects of dietary fibre and their potential benefits for health. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition (United Kingdom).
- Li, J., Kaneko, T., Qin, L. Q., Wang, J., & Wang, Y. (2003). Effects of barley intake on glucose tolerance, lipid metabolism, and bowel function in women. Nutrition, 19(11), 926-929.
- Sánchez-Muniz, F. J. (2012). Dietary fibre and cardiovascular health. Nutr Hosp, 27(1), 31-45.
- Ferguson, L. R., Chavan, R. R., & Harris, P. J. (2001). Changing concepts of dietary fiber: implications for carcinogenesis. Nutrition and cancer, 39(2), 155-169.
- Buttriss, J. L., & Stokes, C. S. (2008). Dietary fibre and health: an overview. Nutrition Bulletin, 33(3), 186-200.
- Bingham, S. A., Day, N. E., Luben, R., Ferrari, P., Slimani, N., Norat, T., … & Riboli, E. (2003). Dietary fibre in food and protection against colorectal cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): an observational study. The Lancet, 361(9368), 1496-1501.
- Kokubo, Y., Iso, H., Saito, I., Yamagishi, K., Ishihara, J., Inoue, M., & Tsugane, S. (2011). Dietary fiber intake and risk of cardiovascular disease in the Japanese population: the Japan Public Health Center-based study cohort. European journal of clinical nutrition, 65(11), 1233-1241.
- Ferguson, L. R., & Harris, P. J. (2003). The dietary fibre debate: more food for thought. The Lancet, 361(9368), 1487-1488.