6 Easy Ways to Introduce More Dietary Fiber into Your Life
At a glance
Learn the benefits of dietary fiber and how to add more fiber-rich foods into your life easily. A worksheet is included to help you examine and reflect on your current dietary fiber intake.
What you'll learn
- How dietary fiber improves your digestion, lowers blood cholesterol, fights inflammation, and helps you lose weight.
- Six quick tips to help you add more fiber-rich foods into your life.
Dietary Fiber and Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are your most important energy source and are one of the three essential nutrients you need to have each day (the other two include quality protein and good fats).
Yet, not all carbohydrates are created equal. In general, they can be categorized into simple sugars and complex sugars.
Simple sugars are molecules that give food a sweet taste. They can be found in natural foods like ripe fruits and honey. These days, they are also commonly found in processed foods such as candies, soda, refined grains and flour, fruit jams, syrups, and artificial sweaters like aspartame and high fructose corn syrup. These are refined sugars with little nutritional value that can lead to weight gain, premature aging, gut problems, and other health issues. All simple sugars are digested and absorbed by the body quickly and can provide immediate energy to the body; this can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and, if consumed too much, cause a burden to your pancreas.
Complex sugars provide more sustained energy and are the group that dietary fiber belongs to.
You’ve probably heard that dietary fibers are good for digestion. How does it work exactly? They pass through your small intestines without being digested and make their way to your large intestine. Some of them remain intact. Soluble fiber – the fiber that dissolves when mixed with water and becomes a gel-like substance – slows down the movement of food through the small intestine, thus allowing for more thorough digestion. Insoluble fiber – the fiber that does not dissolve in water –speed up the transit times of wastes expelled from your body. They also provide bulking to increase stool bulk. Besides, since fibers absorb water as they move through the digestive system, they can soften the stool and ease defecation.
Both soluble and insoluble fiber can lower blood cholesterol level and, therefore, improve your heart health. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and bile acids in the intestine and removes them from your body (source). Due to the reduced amount of bile acids, the liver must use cholesterol to produce more of them, hence lowering the amount of cholesterol in the body. Besides, the body naturally dumps excess cholesterol into the small intestine. The bulking action and faster transit time made possible by insoluble fiber make it more difficult for the cholesterol to be reabsorbed into the bloodstream through the intestine wall (source).
Although some fibers are indigestible by the human body, they can be consumed by the microbes residing in your gut to dampen inflammation. As they eat food within the intestine, they produce by-products that can be health promoting such as short-chain fatty acids (or SCFAs). These molecules can help the intestine accumulate a type of immune system cell called the regulatory T cell (or T-regs), which are considered to be the potential “new treatments or preventative strategies for many inflammatory diseases”, according to Erica Sonnenburg and Justin Sonnenburg, authors of The Good Gut (a great book that opens my eyes to a whole new understanding of my body).
Consuming more dietary fiber also helps you lose weight. The texture of some fibrous foods may increase the time in chewing, leading to early satiation (the feeling of fullness as you eat). Did you know that it takes 20 minutes for the brain to receive the signals sent from the stomach? More chewing time allows the brain to receive the warning signals in time, lowering the likelihood of overeating.
Have you noticed that the foods with more calories – such as salted nuts, pastries, cheesecakes, and pasta – are usually the ones that you cannot stop eating? That’s because energy density and palatability have been shown to be correlated (source). Dietary fiber with lower calories may reduce energy intake by lowering the overall palatability of the diet. This helps with food intake and energy control. Don’t get me wrong, though. This doesn’t mean they don’t taste good. Rather, it simply means you are less likely to get addicted to eating more without control.
Eating soluble fiber can slow down gastric emptying and small bowel transit. This particularly slows down fat absorption and increases intestinal exposure to fats, intensifying satiety (the feeling of fullness between meals).
Besides, as I was doing research for my book on vegetable fermentation, I also found out that a particular group of microbes called Bacteroidetes, associated with metabolism and the prevention of weight gain, are cultivated especially when you consume a fiber-rich diet (source a and b).
The microbes living inside you don’t just help you with weight control. These good bacteria contribute greatly to your overall well-being: they lift up your mood, improve brain functions, and strengthen immunity, just to name a few. Since dietary fiber is a very important food source for them, eating a variety of fiber-rich foods will help them thrive and help you enjoy better health.
Reflect on Your Dietary Fiber Intake
Now that you have some basic knowledge, how can you translate what you know into actions? Before you identify any dietary food source, I suggest you reflect on your current diet first. Becoming aware of your own behaviors is the first step to make any change. Specifically, here’s what you will do:
- Pick a day and document what you eat on that day. Once you do that, you begin to start a habit of mindfully paying close attention to what goes into your mouth, as if you were an observer watching your own dietary behaviors.
- Identify all your current fiber food sources (you may check out this reference chart, which is also included in my Health Manifesto).
- Find out all the refined carbohydrates.
Don’t try to be a perfectionist and eliminate refined sugars all of a sudden. This exercise is just to give you a rough idea of what you eat at this point in life. Simply try your best to mindfully choose to eat a bit less refined carbs than yesterday.
You may download this worksheet I’ve created for your reflection.
Six Ways to Easily Incorporate More Dietary Fiber into Your Daily Life
- Eat unpeeled potatoes (organic ones are preferred). Eating potatoes with skin adds more fiber along with other nutrients into your diet. Unpeeled potatoes have lower glycemic index than the peeled ones; this means they, compared with potatoes without skin, can moderately stabilize your blood sugar levels without causing sudden spikes.
- Similarly, eat unpeeled sweet potatoes (organic ones are preferred). Some people are concerned whether the skin is edible. The truth is, it is completely safe to eat it (source).
- Add vegetables to your smoothies. Some of my favorite ingredients are cucumbers, celery stalks, and Romaine lettuce. If you enjoy kale and spinach, I’d suggest you eat them raw in moderation. Spinach is high in oxalic acid; it binds to iron and calcium to form compounds that may turn into kidney stones later on. Cooking spinach can lower the amount of oxalic acid, although it doesn’t neutralize it completely (source). Kale contains substances called goitrogens which can block the intake of iodine and, when consumed in large amounts, can damage your thyroid gland. Cooking kale can reduce some or most of the goitrogens (source). In other words, eating cooked kale is my recommended way to enjoy kale.
- Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices to help stabilize your blood sugar level as well.
- Consider trying different leafy greens at a local Asian supermarket, if there is any nearby. An Asian supermarket usually offers a good variety of leafy greens that you cannot find elsewhere. Generally speaking, sautéing them with salt, minced garlic, and a little bit of oil ideal for high-temperature cooking (such as avocado oil) will make a tasty dish. If you have any question regarding how to cook a specific type of vegetables found in an Asian supermarket, leave a comment below.
- Eat more foods rich in non-starchy polysaccharides, which are considered by authors of The Good Gut to be the “microbiota accessible carbohydrate”. Consider fruits high in pectin such as peaches, apples, organs, grapefruits, and apricots (source) and inulin-rich vegetables like onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, fresh herbs, and yams (source).
I would also add resistant starch to the list of microbes-friendly foods, as this type of starchy food will travel through your digestive tract without being digested in the small intestine and reach your large intestine to be utilized by your microbes. Examples are oats, brown rice, white beans, lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans. To maximize their nutritional value, I recommend you soak them for 12-24 hours before you cook them to reduce the amount of mineral-block phytic acids (source).
Finally, there are three quick notes: be sure to introduce fiber into your diet slowly into your diet, as having too much fiber at one time can cause bloating, intestinal gas production, and other discomforts. Secondly, variety matters. Getting fiber from different sources help you get a variety of other nutrients as well. And lastly, remember to hydrate the body, as fiber works best when it absorbs water (source).
- Dietary fiber is a form of complex sugars that can provide sustained energy to the body.
- Dietary fiber helps you digest better, lower blood cholesterol, improve heart health, fight inflammation, and help you lose weight. They also feed the good bacteria inside you, which play a crucial role in improving the mood, brain functions, and your immunity.
- Ways to add more fiber: eat unpeeled potatoes and sweet potatoes; add vegetables into your smoothies; enjoy whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices; try a variety of leafy greens offered in a nearby Asian supermarket (if there is any); eat more pectin-rich fruits, inulin-rich veggies, and foods with resistant starch.
Most of us have already known eating more fiber-rich foods is good for us. But common knowledge is, ironically, often not the common practice. Be sure to download the worksheet to examine your diet and try one suggestion mentioned above and add a different fiber source into your diet this coming week.
Eat well and be happy,
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