Eating high fiber foods in your diet for better health

Fiber is an immensely important nutrient that helps maintain and support a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Astonishingly, less than 3 percent of Americans get the recommended amount of daily fiber. The recommended amount of daily fiber is 28 grams per day for women and 35 grams per day for men. However, not only is high-fiber intake important, but so is the diversity of the fiber you consume. The more variety of fiber you incorporate in your diet, the more your gut microbiome can flourish, creating healthy effects throughout the entire body.

What is fiber and why is it so important?

Dietary fiber is a non-digestible form of carbohydrate that provide benefits such as laxation, mineral absorption, anticancer properties, lipid metabolism and anti-inflammatory effects. There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber is non-digestible or slowly digested, giving you the benefits of preventing constipation and diverticular disease. Sources include whole grains, wheat, bran, nuts, and seeds.

Soluble fiber is viscous and fermented by gut bacteria into metabolites called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that have beneficial health properties. These benefits include weight loss, cholesterol lowering, stabilization of blood sugar levels and reduction of cardiovascular disease risk. It also helps feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Sources of soluble fiber include, but are not limited to, broccoli, artichoke, sweet potatoes, avocados, berries, figs, apples, pears, legumes, oats, beans, flax seed and barley.

Fiber and preventing leaky gut

A main component of maintaining eubiosis (balance) within the microbial community in the gut is the intake of fiber and production of metabolites called short-chain fatty acids. A leaky gut occurs when the healthy microbiota die off and the colonic wall is no longer protected by a healthy community of anti-inflammatory bacteria. This results in the loss of tight junctions holding the gut wall together and an increase in intestinal permeability.

Low-fiber, meat-centric Western diets have contributed to an increase in weight gain and inflammation, with many Americans suffering from symptoms of a leaky gut. We need SCFAs to repair leaky gut by increasing the expression of tight junction proteins and decreasing endotoxin release. Dysbiosis in the gut can actually lead to the development of a wide variety of chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, allergies and obesity.

What diseases doES a diet high in fiber prevent against?

Diets high in fiber can combat against cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. High fiber diets decrease the risk of major cardiovascular events and stroke by 40-50 percent. Fiber positively affects vascular aging, blood lipids and high blood pressure, which ultimately leads to a reduction in cardiovascular risk.

Fiber helps in the prevention of Type II diabetes by influencing a person’s glucose levels after a meal by delaying the absorption of dietary carbohydrates while also helping with post-meal satiety. Obesity is a stronger predictor for developing type II diabetes; therefore, nutritional measures that help with weight loss will inadvertently improve insulin resistance. Studies show a 20-30-percent reduction in risk of developing type 2 diabetes with the intake of recommended daily fiber.

Intake of high fiber at a younger age can virtually prevent diverticula, which are outpouchings that form in the lining of the digestive tract, from occurring. If patients do have diverticulitis, a high-fiber diet is a nutritional recommendation that is implemented to prevent reoccurrence. Doing so reduces the risk by 30 percent of possible hospitalization for diverticular disease.

Dietary fiber is associated with phytochemicals and bioactive substances that protect the GI tract from oxidative damage. When an individual eats a typical Western diet, damaged DNA manifests as single strand breaks in colonocytes which, if not repaired, may lead to colonic carcinogenesis.

How can I incorporate more fiber into my diet?

So what foods are high in fiber, and how can you make these substitutions to your diet? One way can be through substitution of legumes, lentils or barley for rice, pasta or meats. For example, one cup of red lentils yields roughly 16 grams of fiber. The addition of flax seed, hemp seeds or chia seeds into your cereals, smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal or baked goods is another easy way to add more fiber throughout your day. Another way is to ensure that you are getting the recommended daily serving of 1.5-2 cups of high-fiber whole fruits daily, such as apples, pears, blueberries, blackberries, prunes, apricots and dates. You can replace side dishes with high-fiber vegetables such as beans, peas, artichokes, butternut squash, kale, broccoli and spinach (and all of these are great to add to a nutrition-forward diet anyway!).

It is important that you go low and slow when adding more fiber into your diet. A person should not increase their intake by more than 5 grams per week. Signs and symptoms of eating too much fiber too fast include increased flatulence, bloating, or abdominal discomfort. It is important to allow your gut to adapt to the dietary changes you are making and drink plenty of water in the process.

Boost the fiber in your diet with these delicious recipes:

Pesto and tomato pasta

  • 3 cups kale
  • ¾ cup hemp seeds
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper
  • ¼ cup + 1 tablespoon olive oil (can replace with flaxseed oil)
  • 1 cup sweet grape tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Pasta, red lentil pasta or zucchini noodles
  • Optional: grilled chicken or cooked shrimp

Blend kale, hemp seeds, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a blender or food processor. Add olive oil gradually.

Boil water and cook pasta until al dente.

Saute tomatoes in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Drain pasta, reserving 2 tablespoons of pasta water. Mix pasta, the tomato mixture and pesto until combined. Add pasta water as needed. Add additional lemon juice if desired.

Vegetable curry

  • 6 carrots, chopped
  • 1 zucchini, chopped into cubes
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon curry paste
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2-3 handfuls of spinach
  • Naan bread, rice or lentils for serving

Saute vegetables over medium heat in the olive oil for 15 minutes or until tender. Add the garlic and spices and cook for an additional five minutes until fragrant. Add the coconut milk, diced tomatoes and curry paste; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas, lemon juice and spinach and cook for an additional five minutes. Serve over rice.

Italian lentil soup

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 6 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped white mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon thyme, fresh or dried
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • ½ cup dry white wine (such as sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio)
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 cup lentils, washed
  • 3 cups kale, chopped and stemmed removed
  • ½ cup soy milk, coconut milk, whole milk or heavy cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Saute onion, carrots, celery, mushrooms and spices in olive oil until vegetables are tender. Stir in the tomato paste. Add wine, broth and lentils. Simmer 20-30 minutes over medium heat. Stir in kale and milk with 10 minutes remaining and serve with fresh Parmesan.

Peanut butter and jelly smoothie

  • 1 frozen banana (if not using frozen, add a few ice cubes)
  • 1 cup frozen strawberries
  • 1 handful chopped kale
  • 2 tablespoons almond butter or peanut butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • 1 tablespoon flax seed
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
  • 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk

Place all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.

Chocolate peanut butter date bites

  • 1 cup pitted dates (roughly 12-14 dates)
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • ½ cup peanut butter or other nut butter
  • 1 tablespoon flax seed
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • Additional add-ins: coconut flakes for coating; raisins; oats or mini chocolate chips

Chop all ingredients in a food processor. If mixture is too wet, add more flax seed. Incorporate until mixture has a dough-like consistency. Roll into one-inch balls. Place on parchment paper and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.

Our expert family medicine providers at Des Moines University Clinic can help you develop a nutrition, health and wellness plan tailored to your needs and goals. Visit the DMU Clinic website or call 515-271-1700 to schedule your appointment.

Disclaimer: This content is created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Jenna Van Donslear

My name is Jenna Van Donslear and I am a second-year physician assistant student from Marion, IA. I chose physician assistant as my future career for its versatility and team-based approach to medicine. I look forward to building strong relationships with patients and hope to make a difference in their quality of life. I am particularly interested in nutrition and preventative medicine, something I plan on incorporating strongly into my future practice.

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