Health benefits of fiber

Fiber, also known as roughage, is a type of carbohydrate indigestible portion of food. Most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, but fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead it passes through the body undigested. Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check. There are basically two kinds, both important in keeping you healthy. Soluble fiber which dissolves easily in water and becomes a soft gel in your intestines. Insoluble fiber which remains unchanged as it speeds up your food’s trip through your digestive system.

Back in the 1940s, Dr. Denis Parsons Burkitt, who was a surgeon working in East Africa, rarely saw conditions, like constipation, hemorrhoids, and appendicitis, that were widespread in the Western world. He came to believe the amount of fiber, or roughage, people eat could explain why.

In his book, Eat Right — To Stay Healthy and Enjoy Life More, Burkitt pointed out that people in developing nations tended to eat about 60 grams of fiber a day. In Western countries, the average amount was about 20 grams. Today fiber intake is even lower. According to the National Institutes of Health, Americans eat only 5 to 20 grams of fiber a day. If you are among those eating the lowest amounts, you fall far short of the recommended 20 to 35 grams. Many nutritionists believe you’d be healthier with the higher amounts Burkitt recommended.

Many different studies have highlighted how eating a diet high in fiber can boost your immune system and overall health, and help you look and feel your best. Some of the benefits include:

Diabetes: A diet high in fiber—particularly insoluble fiber from cereals—can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. If you already have diabetes, eating soluble fiber can slow the absorption of sugar and improve your blood sugar levels.

Heart attacks and strokes: The soluble fiber in foods like oatmeal, okra, and oranges helps eliminate much of the cholesterol that can clog your arteries and cause a stroke or heart attack.

Constipation and hemorrhoids: “If fiber intake were adequate, laxatives would seldom be required,” said Burkitt. Apples, sweet potatoes, barley, and pinto beans provide this roughage. Burkitt thought “softage” would be a better name for fiber, because it keeps the stool moist, soft, and easy to eliminate.

Appendicitis: “Keeping bowel content soft,” said Burkitt, “seems to provide the best safeguard against the development of appendicitis.” Treats like apricots and peaches are a tasty way to do this.

Diverticulosis: As your body processes fibrous foods, like peas, spinach, and corn, it tones up your intestinal muscles. This helps prevent pouches, called diverticula, which can cause abdominal pain if they become inflamed.

Weight gain: The best way to lose weight is to eat low-fat, lowcalorie vegetables and grains. “The more bulky fiber-rich foods you eat,” said Burkitt, “the less fat you will be consuming, and vice versa.” And since the fiber swells, you’ll feel satisfied faster. If you have room for dessert, choose fruits like plums or strawberries.

Impotence: You probably never imagined that navy beans, brussels spouts, and zucchini squash could improve your love life. But these fiber-filled vegetables help maintain strong blood flow to the penis by lowering your cholesterol and keeping your blood vessels unclogged. The beans, in addition, contain L-arginine, a protein that also helps improve potency.

Cancer: Burkitt believed a high-fiber diet defends against colon and rectal cancers in two ways. His cultural studies showed the more animal fat in a diet, the higher the incidence of bowel cancer. Eventually, he realized that the more bulky, fiber-rich foods people eat, the less unhealthy fat they consume.

Not only that, but a healthy portion of fiber speeds cancercausing compounds out of the digestive system more quickly — before they have a chance to make trouble.

Even if experts debate how all this really works, anyone who loads their plate with whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits, and vegetables will say there’s no arguing with natural success.

Burkitt also considered fiber a protector against other conditions, like gallbladder disease, varicose veins, and hiatal hernia.

How to fit more fiber into your day

Now that you have so many good reasons to eat fiber, consider these ways to get more into your diet. But don’t overdo it. Adding too much fiber to your diet too quickly can cause unpleasant side effects, like gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. Your best bet is to add fibrous foods gradually.

Start the day with a whole-grain cereal: Read food labels to find a cereal that contains at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. Top it off with raisins, sliced bananas, or chopped apple.

Eat some vegetables raw: Munch on carrot or celery sticks, and lunch on a crunchy garden salad. When you cook veggies, steam or saute them just until tender.

Snack on fresh and dried fruits: And whenever possible, eat the skins of fruits and vegetables. That’s where you’ll find the most fiber.

Substitute brown rice for white: With that switch, you’ll triple the fiber. Try some less-familiar unprocessed grains as well, like bulgur, couscous, or kasha.

Add beans to soups and stews: Replace meat a couple of times a week with dishes like bean burritos or red beans and rice. To prevent gas and bloating, don’t cook dried beans in the same water you soak them in.

Sip some psyllium: Sometimes dental problems make chewing difficult, and you have to choose soft, low-fiber foods. At times like these, it may be helpful to supplement your diet with Metamucil — made from the fiber of ground psyllium seeds. This isn’t a laxative, but it can help your bowels function normally if you take it daily, not just when you are constipated.

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