It’s easy to get caught up in counting calories and grams of added sugars, fats, proteins, and carbs when you’re trying to eat well. But there’s one nutrient that too often gets thrown to the wayside: dietary fiber.
Scientists have long known that eating fiber is good for health. Decades ago, Irish physician (and fiber enthusiast) Denis Burkitt proclaimed, “America is a constipated nation… if you pass small stools, you have to have large hospitals.” And yet, years later, many of us are still ignoring our fiber intake.
American adults are only eating an average of 15 grams of fiber on any given day, despite the daily recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics being:
- 25 grams for women, or 21 grams if over 50 years old
- 38 grams for men, or 30 grams if over 50
Recently, however, fiber has popped up in headlines thanks to people like journalist Megyn Kelly and model Molly Sims, who have both credited their physiques on mainlining roughage. And more importantly, new research has been shedding more light on how fiber helps our bodies. This nutrient has been linked to fending off disease and reducing the risk of a range of conditions, including type 2 diabetes, food allergies, and even knee arthritis.
Star-studded endorsements aside, it’s not about eating a “high-fiber” diet as much as it’s simply this: Eat more fiber. Fiber does more than contributing to weight loss and reducing the risk of disease.
Losing out on those recommended fiber grams per day may significantly change the way your gut functions. It could even make a difference between weight loss or none, and longer life or not.
Many studies have strongly linked high-fiber diets with longer and healthier lives. For example, Dr. Burkitt, as mentioned above, found in the 1960s that Ugandans who ate high-fiber vegetable diets avoided many of the common diseases of Europeans and Americans. In addition, studies in the late ’80s found that long-living rural Japanese populations ate high-fiber diets, as opposed to urban dwellers with lower fiber intakes.
But only recently have we gained a deeper understanding of why fiber is so vital to our well-being.
A 2017 study found that the importance of fiber is intimately tied with the importance of our gut microbes. A proper fiber diet literally feeds and makes these bacteria thrive. In turn, they increase in number and kind. The more microbes we have in our intestines, the thicker the mucus wall and the better the barrier between our body and our busy bacteria population. While the mucus barrier lowers inflammation throughout the body, the bacteria aid in digestion, creating a dual benefit.
A living, walking example of the great connection between fiber, intestinal bacteria, and health are the Hazda, a Tanzanian tribe that’s one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer communities in the world. They eat a spectacular 100 grams of fiber a day, all from food sources that are seasonally available. As a result, their gut biome is packed with diverse populations of bacteria, which ebb and flow with the changing of the seasons and the changes in their diet.
Your biome can change by the season, by the week, or even by the meal. And if you eat a large array of fresh fruits, grains, and vegetables, your gut health will reflect that. Eating low-fiber foods, or eating only a few types of fiber — such as the same fiber supplement every day — can harm your intestinal biome and the health of your protective mucus wall.
However, eating too much fiber can cause digestive distress, gas, and intestinal blockages. The good news is that it’s hard to get too much fiber, especially since most people don’t get enough. Slowly ramping up your fiber intake can help you avoid some of the above problems. Not overdoing it will help you avoid the rest.