The Amazing Benefits of Fiber in Food

Food fiber has amazing benefits for health. We began learning about some of its benefits about 50 years ago. Previously it was thought to be of no nutritional value because we can’t digest it, and it doesn’t provide any calories or nutrients to humans. Thanks to Dr. Burkitt’s observations in Africa, we learned that fiber improves regularity and is good for overall bowel health. More recent research provides evidence that high fiber intake cuts down the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Now, research is focusing on the impact of fiber on our intestinal microbiome. We have an estimated 100 trillion bacteria in our bodies, mostly in the intestinal tract. That’s at least three times more than the total number of cells in our body, and this microbiome has far more genes than we have in our DNA. Cutting-edge research shows that genetic interplay takes place between our genes and those of our microbiome. We’re learning that fiber in our food changes the microbiome in ways that influence our health. Even though we’re not able to digest fiber in our food, the bacteria in our gut love fiber and go to work on it with gusto. This in turn has both direct and indirect benefits for health.

A strong plant-based diet is associated with predominance of bacteria that seem to be good for human health. Some of these interactions may help resolve or prevent some kinds of allergy and some of our auto-immune disorders. By comparison, diets that are low in plant-based foods seem to favor different bacteria in the microbiome that may not be so good for us. When there is little or no fiber in the diet, these bacteria may attack the intestinal mucous lining and produce an inflammatory endotoxin that is absorbed into the blood stream. Much more research is needed to determine how big a problem this poses for human health, but it’s clear that there are substantial benefits to eating foods with abundant fiber.

How much fiber should we consume? National guidelines recommend 25 grams daily for adult females and 38 grams for adult males. Best sources are whole plant-based foods. Meat, eggs, and dairy foods have no fiber. Most highly processed foods are fiber deficient. Taking fiber supplements is not a good solution. Tests show that it’s not as effective as the natural fiber found in whole foods. Fewer than 3 percent of Americans meet our national guidelines. The average adult only takes in about 15 grams of fiber daily. How hard is it to boost intake enough to meet the guidelines? Not hard. I’ll write about that next week.

Vital insight: Food fiber is essential for optimal health. It’s a good idea to eat fiber-rich foods daily!