What’s So Great About High-Fiber Foods?
Anyone who has ever experienced constipation can appreciate the importance of high-fiber foods in the diet. Constipation, or the inability to move the bowels regularly and effortlessly, does not occur because one has been eating too many plant foods. On the contrary, it almost always follows on the heels of a diet that includes too few of these foods. That’s because plant foods are nature’s reliable source of dietary fiber. And, although it is not strictly a nutrient, dietary fiber actually plays an important role in health and wellness.
Once thought to provide little more than “roughage,” or bulk to help form the stool, we now know that dietary fiber plays many important roles in the body. While it does encourage healthful bowel activity, fiber also helps keep the entire digestive tract humming along. It even helps boost immunity.
Ordinarily divided into soluble and insoluble categories, fiber of both types is typically present in fiber-containing foods. The different classes of fiber exert different beneficial effects in the body, ranging from helping to lower blood cholesterol levels to helping to protect colon cells from becoming cancerous. Soluble fiber, for example, may help prevent sharp rises in blood sugar levels after eating. This, in turn, discourages the development of type 2 diabetes.
High Fiber Equals Happy Gut Microbes
Fiber is also important to our invisible passengers; the trillions of friendly bacterial cells comprising the gut microbiome. These bacteria thrive on fiber, which is otherwise undigestible to us. The health of the microbes living in one’s body may appear to be of little concern, but nothing could be further from the truth. Research suggests that the health—and makeup—of these diverse communities of organisms can have a profound impact on our own health.
Research also indicates that the best-quality microbes tend to love fiber. From plants. In contrast, microbes that favor simple sugars (readily available in the Western diet) tend to be far less beneficial to health. Some of these microbes may actually encourage overeating, and thus, obesity.
Sadly, the typical American diet features simple carbohydrates, made from highly processed grains, along with meats and occasionally, deep-fried foods such as white potatoes. There’s usually plenty of fat and sugar, but far too little fiber from plant foods. Think of the average burger joint fast-food meal. White bread (zero fiber), burger (zero fiber), various toppings (negligible fiber), and french fries (zero fiber). In fact, it’s possible to eat all day in America and avoid consuming significant amounts of dietary fiber.
A Diverse Plant-based Diet is Best for Omnivores
To say that this is unnatural is to state the obvious. Human beings are omnivores. While we may enjoy the occasional steak—and yes, even hamburger—we are meant to consume all manner of foods, not just meat. For optimal health, we should strive to eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs, legumes, beans, etc.
Unprocessed grains contain lots of soluble and insoluble fiber, not to mention important “phytonutrients”. The latter are plant-based chemical compounds you won’t find on any nutrition label. But that doesn’t mean these chemicals aren’t highly beneficial. Many are consumed and metabolized by the gut microbiota, generating beneficial compounds that are eventually released into the circulation. Other important sources of dietary fiber include fruits, vegetables, legumes, etc.
Research suggests that people who consume greater amounts of dietary fiber enjoy protection against a wide range of serious diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer.