Fiber has emerged as a nutrition superstar in recent years. Food companies have discovered its importance and touted its benefits on every whole grain product occupying our shelves. From crackers to brownies, it appears our starchy favorites have suddenly gained more grams of dietary fiber per serving.
As a dietitian, I think this is a step in the right direction. However, I do get a little discouraged, because fiber is naturally found in so many foods, and these foods have an arsenal of other health benefits to go along with them. Although it is nice, the public didn’t need Kellogg to add fiber to their granola bar to get the daily-recommended amount. Turns out a lot of people are confused (health professionals included), as I often get asked, “What exactly is fiber?”
For a dietitian, this question can result in a fervid reaction. Fiber makes us excited (really), because it is so beneficial (and under consumed). The average American eats about 15 grams each day, when they really should be getting anywhere from 25 to 38 grams (women and men, respectively). However, the answer to this seemingly simple question can be far more complex than anticipated. I am going to keep it as simple as possible, because for your heart, colon, and overall well-being’s sake, I want you to embrace fiber.
In short, fiber is the tough, cell walls of plant-based food that goes undigested. Essentially, our digestive juices don’t know what to do with it, but rather have to mangle it up in order to get to the nutrients our bodies can absorb and use. The fiber material is then discarded through a bowel movement. If you have ever eaten corn, you may know what I am speaking of. I actually get a little sad for fiber, because it does the tough job of holding our food together – food that goes on to nourish our bodies. Albeit, like a tale of unrequited love, the body takes what it needs and tosses the maimed fiber out. Oh well…
Currently, there is debate over the different types of fiber and what we should call it. As someone who is responsible for teaching others what to eat, I wanted to pull my hair out many times while searching for the correct terminology. Many a Saturday mornings have been spent researching this (wish I was joking).
So, after reading the definitions formulated from the Institute of Medicine, American Association of Cereal Chemists, Health Canada, and more, I have respectfully taken their words into account and decided on this:
- First, we are breaking down this indigestible matter into two categories: dietary fiber and functional fiber.
o Dietary Fiber: naturally found in food. The skin of fruits, insides of beans, stringy-things on celery, etc.
o Functional Fiber: isolated fiber bits taken from naturally grown food that is then consumed or added to recipes. Think Metamucil or the inulin put in our granola bars.
- Next, Dietary Fiber can be broken down into two categories of its own.
o Soluble Fiber
o Insoluble Fiber
Two bullet points is a mediocre way to fully explain soluble and insoluble fibers. Tackling both types in one article would do fiber an injustice. Instead I’m going to break it up and give it the love it deserves. To learn more about how absolutely marvelous dietary fiber can be, sit tight for parts two and three of my fiber saga.
Nonetheless, I won’t let you go without a teaser. One thing EVERYONE agrees on is how wonderful fiber is for your health. Here are just four of its potential benefits:
1. Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease
2. Improves bowel health by reducing the risk of colon cancer and keeping bowel movements regular
3. Helps maintain a healthy weight
4. Helps control the body’s blood sugar (known as serum glucose) levels
To get your brain salivating for more knowledge, here is a slide show glorifying foods loaded with fiber:
To be continued...