The Hidden Benefits of Fiber
Everyone is acquainted with fiber’s most well-known and euphemistically extolled health benefit – as a natural laxative, it keeps you “regular” – but for most people, that’s where the knowledge ends. As it turns out, there are many other reasons to make this nutritional all-star a permanent part of your diet.
Dietary fiber exists in two forms: soluble and insoluble, both of which are essential to wellbeing, explains Saritha Rajiv, a nutritionist at Nutrifull, a Goa clinic. Soluble fiber is found in dry and fresh fruits, vegetables, oats, and dried beans, including channa, chole, rajmah, peas and lentils. Insoluble fiber is found in the bran portion of whole grains, in pulses such as the various dhals used in Indian cooking, seeds, and the skins of fruits and vegetables.
But what does all this fiber do?
It helps regulate diabetes and high cholesterol.
While fiber isn’t a substitute for any medication you may be taking, it can complement it by naturally helping prevent and/or regulate conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol.
“Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material in the stomach,” Rajiv says. “As a result of this gel, nutrients are released slowly into the blood stream, preventing a sudden spike in blood sugar and controlling cholesterol and LDL (cholesterol) levels.”
It may protect against colon cancer.
Roughage from insoluble fiber helps speed the movement of bowels, which may offer a degree of protection from colorectal cancers, according to some recent studies.
Cancer Research, a UK organisation, suggests that insoluble fiber actually aids in rushing various toxins through the colon as well as preventing inflammation—two factors linked to colorectal cancers. Indeed, one in ten bowel cancers were found to correlate to a low-fiber diet. Studies established that by eating just 10 grams of fiber per day, people stand a chance of reducing their risk of bowel cancer by as much as 10 percent. In other words, say researchers, the more fiber you consume, the less likely you are to contract colorectal cancers.
It prevents strokes and boosts brain power.
Researchers at the University of Leeds assessed eight long-term studies from the US, Japan, Europe, and Australia in order to conclude that eating more fiber significantly lowers one’s risk of stroke. Another recent study by researchers at Cardiff University in Wales established that a fiber-rich breakfast reduced fatigue and depression and even boosted brain power in participants, who showed sharper cognitive ability than subjects who ate a less fiber-filled meal.
It aids in weight loss.
If you’re looking to lose fat and keep it off, fiber-rich foods may be your biggest ally.
“These foods are chockfull of vitamins and minerals,” says Dr. Nupur Krishnan, a clinical nutritionist and director of Bio-logics Healthcare in Mumbai. “A regular intake will fill you up faster, help you feel more satiated, and leave little room for other high-fat, high-calorie options.”
Dr. Krishnan added that foods high in fiber tend to require very little oil to cook—good news to anyone counting calories.
“You can grill, bake or oven-roast these foods more often without compromising on taste,” she says.
So, should you add fiber to your diet?
“An adult male requires 30-38 grams and an adult female requires 25 grams of dietary fiber per day,” advises Rajiv. “An Indian diet, supplemented with a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, should supply enough amount of fiber to meet our daily requirements.”
Sambhars, dhals, chapathis and whole grain, like unpolished rices, are all rich sources, she adds.
Refined foods, however, such as white bread, polished white rice, noodles, and other processed food items are stripped of both fiber and healthy nutrients, adding little value other than taste and calories. Dr. Krishnan advises replacing brown bread with a multigrain option, which is packed with fiber. She also stresses eating whole fruit instead of fruit juice, as the skins and rinds give you a fiber boost.
“In fruits like apples and pears, to reap the nutritional benefits of fiber, one must consume the skin after washing the fruit thoroughly,” she says. “After you peel an orange, consume it with some of the white portion that sticks to the fruit. Be sure to make fresh fruit choices.”
If you do plan to increase your intake of fiber, increase the amount of water you drink, too. More fiber without more water leads to an uncomfortable place—Dr. Krishnan recommends at least 8-10 glasses a day in order to prevent constipation and related issues. And if you’re introducing more fiber into your child’s diet, do so in slow spurts and make sure they chew thoroughly.
“It’s easy for them [kids] to choke if they swallow fiber foods without chewing properly,” says Dr Krishnan. “Be patient while introducing fiber for the first time. And do keep in mind that too much of it can worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and cause digestive problems such as bloating. So introduce small portions every day.”