Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Benefits of Fiber

Today has been an extremely unproductive day for me. I pulled a muscle in my back yesterday and consequently wasn’t able to get anything done at home or go to the boat today. To say that I am a bad sick person doesn’t even begin to explain how cranky I get when I don’t feel well. When I get a cold or pull a muscle my attitude immediately shifts to be annoyed with my body for letting me down. Is this logical or rational behavior? Well of course it isn’t and you would think I would know better since I will be 50 my next birthday. *shakes head*

Initially I wasn’t going to mention this because it isn’t positive and I don’t like to dwell on the negative things in life. However I have been feeling rather annoyed with myself today and wanted you to know that I also have days where things don’t go right and sometimes I let those things color my mood. I am sure I will be much better by tomorrow. However today I am annoyed that I have been popping Ibuprofen every 4 hours to keep the pain to a dull roar. Since most of you know how much I dislike pills the Ibuprofen should say a lot. Without the OTC NSAIDs I have difficult standing up to get out of chair this morning.

Okay enough whining about my pulled muscle, which is clearly only a temporary problem. Since I had more time that usual with my tush parked in a chair I decided to write about one of my favorite subjects today to cheer myself up. Fiber! What how can fiber be anyone’s favorite subject? Come on I know you were thinking that. ;-) Well I hope after you read my thoughts on fiber it will become one of your favorite subjects too.

The Benefits of Fiber!

As you are very aware we eat a whole food plant-based diet free of animal products. I like to describe our diet this way because a vegan diet can be healthy or it can be very heavy in processed food that it is no better than the standard American diet. There is a huge difference between a healthy and an unhealthy vegan diet and I don’t want there to be any ambiguity regarding what I consider healthy for those who found this post by accident.

In my opinion one of the big benefits of a whole food plant-based diet is the amount of fiber that it contains. Fiber may not be very glamorous but it is critical for maintaining health. Since I think fiber is misunderstood I wanted to explain what it is and why it is so important for our health.

Fiber Defined:

Fiber is generally defined as plant polysaccharides (a complex carbohydrate consisting of 10 or more monosaccharides bonded together by glycosidic bonds) that are not digested in the human small intestine meaning that they arrive in the colon intact. Some of these glycosidic (covalent) bonds (typically insoluble fibers) are resistant to digestive enzymes. When soluble fiber reaches the large intestine intestinal bacteria begin to break down the fiber and this produces gas as well as helping beneficial bacteria flourish.

Only plant based foods contain fiber. There is no fiber in animal products which is why they are very binding (constipating). Fiber can be either soluble or insoluble in water. Soluble fiber tends to swell in water and insoluble remains relatively unchanged. Soluble fiber is what gets broken down in the colon by bacteria which causes gas.

Soluble Fiber:

Foods that contain mostly soluble fiber include: oats, barley, legumes, rice, bran, psyllium, soy and some fruit. The ability of these fiber filled foods to absorb water means that they tend to soften fecal matter which reduces constipation, colon polyps, hemorrhoids and diverticulitis. A diet high in soluble fiber also helps to reduce cholesterol, blood glucose and estrogen levels.

Insoluble Fiber:

The most common form of insoluble fiber is cellulose. Foods which are high in cellulose include: whole-grains, wheat bran, seeds, carrots, broccoli, celery, peppers, cabbage and other green leafy vegetables. Since insoluble fiber does not readily dissolve in water it is not gel forming like soluble fiber. Additionally bacteria do not break them down. Insoluble fiber passes through the gastrointestinal system intact but by doing so it helps the fecal matter pass through your system more quickly which reduces the time toxins are exposed to your colon. This increase in transit time is very positive. If you ever want to know what your transit time is eat something that will be easy to see coming out of you like beets.

How Fiber Reduces Cholesterol, Blood Glucose, Estrogen and Toxins:

Each day we are exposed to unhealthy items that you body needs to filter out. For example let’s say you eat conventional meat, dairy or produce which contains pesticides. Those toxins will ultimately make their way to your intestines after being filtered through your liver and mixing with bile that was stored in your gallbladder. These toxins are now in your intestines (along with excess cholesterol, blood sugar, estrogen, etc.). Unless these bind with soluble fiber which will usher them out of your system they are likely to be reabsorbed through your intestinal walls and make their way back through the GI process again. This is the reason that you now see the health claim on oats that they lower cholesterol. It isn’t anything special about the oats it is the soluble fiber they contain that binds to the cholesterol so it can be flushed down the toilet. The same thing happens to glucose and estrogen. Consuming a high diet in soluble fiber results in lower serum lipids and reduces the postprandial (after the meal) rise in both glucose and insulin.

Many cancers are estrogen sensitive (breast, prostate, cervical, endometrial, and ovarian). Americans tend to carry more weight than is healthy and this excess weight produces additional estrogen. If you eat a diet high in fiber it will also bind to estrogen in the stool before it can be reabsorbed into the body. A prospective cohort study in Sweden found that women with the highest intake of fiber (averaging 26 grams) had a 40% lower risk of breast cancer than the women who consumed the least fiber (they averaged 13 g like Americans). This reduce in breast cancer appears to be due to the reduction of circulating estrogen in these women. Scientists are split on the impact of fiber on breast cancer but since fiber can’t hurt you I say the more fiber the better.

Colon Cancer and Fiber:

Diet is strongly correlated to colon cancer risk. A diet high in dietary fat is thought to influence colon cancer development through its effect on bile acid production. Conversely a diet high in fiber has been shown to reduce colon cancer risk. Scientists believe this is due to: dilution of mutagens (a substance that changes genetic material), reduction of transit time and an alteration of PH (acid/alkaline balance). Since all cancers have a long latency period (meaning they take a long time to develop) it is important to consume a high fiber diet beginning at a young age to reduce your risk of a colon cancer diagnosis later in life.

Diabetes and Fiber:

According the Dr. David Katz “a daily intake of approximately 30 g of dietary fiber from a variety of foods sources is recommended to the general public for health promotion and in the management of diabetes.” Dr. Katz goes on to say that there is evidence that soluble fiber may help in controlling both glucose and lipids in diabetics. While some people feel that significant improvement in glucose and lipids isn’t practical due to the amount of fiber that is required. Dr. Katz points out that our Paleolithic ancestors are thought to have consumed 100 g of fiber per day. When you compare that to the US average intake of 12 g per day it is easy to see how we got into trouble.

Personally if I had diabetes I would not stop at 30 g of fiber. We eat 60+ g of fiber per day and haven’t seen any negative health effect though Dan has commented in the past on how much chewing we need to do eating this way. Not to mention that when you get your fiber from whole plant-based foods you are also consuming many vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that have wonderful benefits for your health.

Hypertension and Fiber:

A diet high in fiber is also associated with modest hypotensive (low blood pressure) effect. This has been seen in both adults and children. In other words if your blood pressure is a little higher than you would like increase your consumption of both soluble and insoluble fiber. They both offer an array of health benefits and the average US intake is well below recommended levels. However a healthy diet is naturally high in fiber so if you eat like we do you probably get all the fiber you need.

I can’t say why my blood pressure dropped so much in the last 10 years. But I can tell you that I went from the standard American diet (probably consisting of approximately 12 g of fiber like the average American) to my current fiber intake which is 60+ g per day. Is that the reason my blood pressure dropped like a rock? I would only be guessing if I said yes, but I am positive that the additional fiber didn’t hurt me.

Adverse Reactions:

People who increase their fiber intake abruptly often experience abdominal cramping, bloating and/or gas. These problems can be minimized or avoided by slowing increasing your fiber intake and by adding more fluids to your diet at the same time. Even though we eat at least two pounds of dried beans each week neither Dan nor I have any gastrointestinal distress. I am convinced that eating a lot of fiber is a bit like weight lifting for the GI system. The more fiber your system processes each day the better it gets and doing it.

Drug Interactions:

While whole plant-based food is not a concern here (other than grapefruit which we have all heard about). However fiber supplements can reduce or slow the absorption of some medications. If you are considering taking psyllium, guar gum or pectin supplements talk to your pharmacist about the timing of your medications and the supplements. Most articles I have read suggest that medications should be taken at least an hour or two before fiber supplements. Alternately you can focus on whole food instead and avoid the risk.

Bottom line:

I truly believe that eating a whole food plant-based diet which focuses on produce first and reduces the consumption of fat and refined foods is the healthiest way to eat. When you eat this type of diet your are getting vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber is what can best be described as therapeutic doses. Since very few of us (myself included) were raised on a whole food diet we have to all suffered some ills from our prior dietary choices whether those have been identified yet or not.

For most of my life I ate foods that were in the realm of the standard American diet. Since both my husband and I loved good food our diet may have even been a little worse than some American’s and it really kills me to say that. At that time I thought I was happy and healthy. I wasn’t on any prescription medications. Dan’s blood pressure was a little elevated but he was taking pills to “control it”. I look back and that now and just shake my head. How could I let myself believe that it was okay to medicate a problem and call it solved? *sigh* Needless to say I would describe myself as very nutritionally naïve back then.

However now that we have changed our diet the difference in how we both feel then to now is like night and day. It wasn’t until we felt so much better that either of us realized how bad we used to feel. I believe that fiber has played a huge role how I feel. My skin is more clear, I feel light even right after I eat, and constipation is not even an option now. ;-)

For those of you who don’t eat a whole food plant-based diet I would recommend that you just try it out. Give it 3 weeks or a month and really commit to it. You don’t need to give up the foods you love for the rest of your life. However if you are anything like us at the end of that month you will feel so good that you might not want to go back to eating the way that you used to. What do you have to lose?


Fuhrman, Joel. Eat to Live. Revised Edition. New York: Little, Brown and Company.; 2011

Higdon, Jane. An Evidence-Based Approach to Dietary Phytochemicals. New York: Theime Medical Publishers, Inc.; 2007

Katz, David L. Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 2nd Ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2008

McQuire, Michelle and Beerman, Kathy A. Nutritional Sciences From Fundamentals to Food. 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2011

Happy Thoughts:

• Today with the pain in my back it was tough to get started on my happy thoughts. However I have to admit that my husband is a prince. He helped me get into the bathtub this morning so that I could soak in a hot bath and make my back feel better. He also helped me make green smoothies this morning and you all know he spends very little time in the kitchen so this was big for him.

• I am also grateful for my pharmacist buddy Louis who was there to give me advice on the best OTC NSAID to take for my back pain. Thanks Louis! You are a wonderful friend.

• Even though I wasn’t in too physical form today (due to my back) I was able to take some time to think about life and what I should be doing with mine. At the end of this time I came away with some ideas that I am pretty excited about. 

• My precious little fur children stayed very close to their mommy today. I may be deluding myself but I think they could tell that I didn’t feel well and consequently they were trying to comfort me.

• The weather this weekend is predicted to be sunny. After all our rainy weekends I am looking forward to another weekend with sun and hopefully wind.

• I am also thankful that my back is feeling much better this evening than it did last night and this morning. As you have probably guessed I am looking forward to being about to get back to regular routine as soon as possible.

Signing out:

It is time for me to log out and spend a little time with my hubby. He had another late night at work after going in a little late this morning to take care of me. Talk with you again soon.


  1. I have the same Dr. Katz book! :-) I took his nutrition class at Yale. He actually taught all the classes- well, except one when he was out of town.

    Yay for fiber!

  2. Jodie,

    Did you love the class? If you have any other books to recommend please do. :-)


  3. My mother takes BP medicine but still insists her numbers are fine. Obviously they aren't if you're on medication! Of course, I'm on a prescription, too, for my migraines, but I've tried everything natural under the sun to no avail. I'm about to try acupuncture again, though.

    But I digress from the topic at hand. Lowering fat and increasing fiber intake have been my two biggest missions in reforming my diabetic omnivore's diet. Now he's working out, too! It's a miracle. Fiber is awesome!

  4. Brigid,

    Most Americans are just like your mom, it is what we see on TV and hear from our doctors. Very frustrating isn't it?

    I hope the acupunture works for your migraines. Have you tried an elimination diet to see if you there is an allergy component? If I see anything on migraines I will be certain to post those links on Facebook. I used to get them too but they are gone now. Mine appeared to have a link to fluctuating hormones and stress.

    Yay on the progress you are making with your sweetie. Sounds like things are going very well. Good fo you! Congratulations. :-)


  5. I haven't tried a formal elimination diet, but I have kept food diaries before and not noticed a link that would suggest an allergy. There is a definite tie between how often I eat and the macronutrients I ingest (i.e. not enough protein kicks my butt every time) and my migraines, and then the usual stuff like wine. I should try an actual elimination phase, though, just to see. Increased magnesium helps me, but I've not found a "cure" thus far.

  6. Brigid,

    I hope the elimination diet turns up something for you. I used to take Imitrex so I know how much you will appreciate being off of it. :-)


  7. great post - and what is that delicious looking soup with the avocados?!

  8. Kenny,

    I wish that I remembered what the soup was but I don't. However I would guess that it was a Mexican spiced bean soup given the avocado topping.



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