All disease begins in the gut – Hippocrates
If you’ve spend any time with me you already know I love talking about gut health! It’s super interesting that gut health is a central theme in Asian medicine, which recognizes the abdomen as the location of the soul. “Honored middle” (onaka) and “center of the spiritual and physical strength” (hara) are how the Japanese describe our largest organ, the intestine.
In the West, we are starting to recognize that having a healthy gut is essential to overall wellness. We need a healthy gut to absorb the nutrients in our food and to ward off infectious agents like bacteria, viruses and fungi. A healthy gut also communicates with the brain through nerves and hormones, which helps maintain general health and well-being.
So how do you get a healthy gut? Weed, seed and feed (thanks Dr Hyman!). Weed out of your diet gut-killing foods and drugs, seed your healthy gut bugs with probiotic foods, and then feed those healthy bugs. Today we’re talking feeding your gut.
Our diets have changed radically over the past few decades, with people consuming more ultra-processed foods void of dietary fiber. This lack of focus on the foods we eat has led to deficiencies in dietary fiber.
Women’s recommended daily fiber intake is 25 grams, while men should aim for 38 grams. Still, most of us less than half of those recommended minimum levels. Do you know how much fiber you eat each day?
Eat more food high in dietary fiber! The key to feeding our gut is FIBER. It’s the secret ingredient that will help you lose weight, be healthier and maybe even improve your mental health!
There are two varieties of fiber:
- Soluble Fiber that dissolves in water and can help lower glucose levels and blood cholesterol. Some foods with soluble fiber include oatmeal, nuts, beans, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, apples and strawberries.
- Insoluble Fiber that does not dissolve in water, can help food move through your digestive system, promoting frequency and helping prevent constipation. Some foods with insoluble fibers include wheat, whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice, green beans, cauliflower, cucumbers, broccoli and tomatoes.
Here are my top 5 ways to increase fiber in your diet
- Include veggies in all your meals
Non-starchy vegetables are particularly low in calories and high in nutrients, including fiber. You can’t eat too many non-starchy veggies! Leafy green, artichokes, eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, zucchini…. Extra points for cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussel sprouts and cauliflower (to name a few). Is one of your super powers cooking? Try a new vegetable recipe every week. You can get my Vegetarian Recipe Collection here.
- Eat your fruit and veggies – don’t drink them and don’t peel them
Individual pieces of fruit, such as an apple or pear, make great snacks because they’re tasty and portable. All fruit delivers fiber, although some have significantly more than others. For instance, one small pear has almost 5 grams of fiber, whereas a cup of watermelon has less than 1 gram. While juicing can add a whole bunch of micronutrients to your diet, juices are stripped of all their fiber. You can enjoy drinking 100% fruit and vegetable juices in moderation, but eating the whole fruit allows you to reap more fibery benefits.
And leave the peel on. For example, one small apple has 3.5 grams of fiber, but a peeled apple has less than 2 grams. Similarly, a small potato has 3 grams of fiber, one of which is from the skin. The kind of fiber found in the peel of fruits and vegetables is generally insoluble fiber.
Berries with seeds are among the most fiber-rich fruits. For the most fiber, choose raspberries or blackberries at 8 grams per cup. Other good choices are strawberries (3 grams) and blueberries (4 grams)
And don’t forget avocados! The creamy, green flesh is not only rich in healthy, monounsaturated fatty acids — it’s also packed with fiber. Half an avocado delivers 5 grams of fiber.
- Choose whole grains over refined grains
Whole grains are minimally processed, leaving the whole grain intact. In contrast, refined grains have been stripped of their vitamin-containing germ and fiber-rich bran. This makes the grain last longer but also takes away the most nutritious parts, leaving only a fast-absorbing carb.
When baking, choose a flour that will add extra nutrition to muffins, breads, and other baked goods. You can easily replace white flour with whole wheat pastry flour. This fine-textured flour has more than 5 times as much fiber as white flour. Some alternative flours are even richer in fiber. For example, an ounce of coconut flour has 10 grams of fiber, while the same amount of soy flour has 7 grams.
- Snack on nuts and seeds, or add them to recipes (in moderation)
Nuts and seeds provide protein, fat, and fiber. An ounce of almonds has close to 4 grams of fiber. They’re also high in unsaturated fats, magnesium, and vitamin
Chia seeds are nutritional powerhouses. They provide omega-3 fatty acids, as well as about 10 grams of fiber per ounce. Chia seeds are nutritional powerhouses. Because they gel in water and are up to 93% insoluble fiber which helps keep your digestive track moving.
- Include plenty of legumes in your diet
Beans, dried peas, and lentils — are very rich in fiber, as well as protein, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. A cup of cooked beans can deliver up to about 50% of your daily fiber needs
What about fiber supplements?
It’s best to get your nutrition — including fiber — from food. But if your fiber intake is low, you might consider taking a supplement. Supplements have two main drawbacks.
First, they can cause stomach discomfort and bloating. To reduce this, introduce a fiber supplement gradually and drink plenty of water.
Second, these supplements can interfere with the absorption of certain medications. So, if you’re currently taking any medications, speak to a healthcare professional before taking a fiber supplement.
A word of caution – if you are not already eating a fiber rich diet – go slowly
Going from 1-100 in anything is usually not a good idea. If you are experiencing bloating and discomfort cut back and slowly re-introduce fiber rich foods. Keep track of what foods seem to have the most impact on you. Everyone at some point experiences digestive problems such as abdominal pain, bloating, loose stools, constipation, heartburn, nausea or vomiting. When symptoms persist, it may be a sign of an underlying problem that needs medical attention. Weight loss without a good reason, blood in the stool, black stool (a sign of bleeding in the gut), severe vomiting, fever, severe stomachaches, trouble swallowing food, pain in the throat or chest when food is swallowed, or jaundice (a yellow discoloration of the skin or eyes) could potentially indicate an underlying gastrointestinal problem with serious consequences. Consult your doctor if any of these symptoms occur.
Sources and Further Reading
O’Grady J, O’Connor EM, Shanahan F. Review article: dietary fiber in the era of microbiome science. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2019 Mar;49(5):506-515. doi: 10.1111/apt.15129. PMID: 30746776
Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH Jr, Ferreri S, Knudtson M, Koraym A, Waters V, Williams CL. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr Rev. 2009 Apr;67(4):188-205. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x. PMID: 19335713.
Barber TM, Kabisch S, Pfeiffer AFH, Weickert MO. The Health Benefits of Dietary Fibre. Nutrients. 2020;12(10):3209. Published 2020 Oct 21. doi:10.3390/nu12103209
EB, Ascherio A, Giovannucci E, Spiegelman D, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. Vegetable, fruit, and cereal fiber intake and risk of coronary heart disease among men. JAMA. 1996 Feb 14;275(6):447-51. doi: 10.1001/jama.1996.03530300031036. PMID: 8627965.
MA, O’Reilly E, Augustsson K, Fraser GE, Goldbourt U, Heitmann BL, Hallmans G, Knekt P, Liu S, Pietinen P, Spiegelman D, Stevens J, Virtamo J, Willett WC, Ascherio A. Dietary fiber and risk of coronary heart disease: a pooled analysis of cohort studies. Arch Intern Med. 2004 Feb 23;164(4):370-6. doi: 10.1001/archinte.164.4.370. PMID: 14980987.
What is ‘gut health’ and why is it important? (ucdavis.edu)