Fiber is often treated as a throw away nutrient. It’s so confusing because even the scientists who categorize nutrients cannot decide if to give it it’s own nutrient category or if it belongs under another nutrient. I was lucky because my mother respected and understood fiber. She would say fiber is like a broom that sweeps out the insides of your digestive system. That’s a really good explanation. Dietary fibers are the parts of plant foods our bodies cannot break down or digest. So when we eat them, they stay in our digestive tract, move all the way through and come out on the other end.
The reason some scientists cannot decide if it’s a nutrient or not is because fiber is made up of glucose, just like carbohydrates. However, despite being made with the same molecule, fiber has a different structure and a very different function in our bodies. It’s kind of like how coal, graphite and diamond are all made up of carbon but they have very different structures and people use coal differently from how they use diamonds. In a similar way, carbohydrates and fiber are made of the same thing – glucose, but they have different structures and our bodies use them for very different functions. Whereas carbohydrates can be digested and broken down into glucose molecules to make energy for our bodies, fiber cannot be digested. Yet, even though our bodies don’t digest fiber, it is an important nutrient that helps our bodies function properly. I consider it a separate nutrient because it has different functions than carbohydrates.
You can get fiber primarily from plant-based foods, especially plants you eat without cooking (fruits and vegetables). There are two main types of fiber, Soluble Fiber and Insoluble Fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and form gel-like substances. This type of fiber can be digested by the healthy bacteria in the colon which helps them produce vitamin K for your body. This type of fiber also protects against heart disease and diabetes by lowering blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fibers are found in foods like oats, apples, barley, citrus fruits like oranges, peas, beans and nuts, carrots and other plant foods.
The other type of fiber is Insoluble Fiber. These add bulk to the food we eat, helping it go through the digestive tract more slowly so nutrients can be properly broken down and absorbed. Insoluble fibers also help promote bowel movements and prevent constipation. In other words, it helps food move all the way through your digestive tract so that what needs to be digested gets digested, and what needs to be passed out gets passed out. Insoluble fibers are found in whole grains, corn, seeds, nuts, brown rice, broccoli, cabbage, onions, carrots, dark leafy vegetables, fruits etc. So if you are eating enough plant foods you will naturally get enough fiber.
One interesting benefit of fiber is that if you eat meals with healthy amounts of it, the fiber will keep you feeling full longer. So if you do not want to overeat it is helpful to have fiber in your meals. I would suggest, if you’re planning to increase your fiber intake you may also need to drink more water. You may experience more gas until your body gets used to the increased fiber. Another option is you can increase fiber intake gradually so your body can get used to it bit by bit. The important thing is, do not neglect this necessary nutrient, eat lots of plant foods and your body will thank you for it (sometimes out loud). But for real though – fiber is important. Be sure it is present in the foods you eat.
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