In the developed world, fiber consumption is at historical lows. Traditionally diets were high in cereal grains, fruits and vegetables. These diets would result in amounts of fiber typically between fifty and seventy grams of fiber on a daily basis for the average person. For example, in 1860 the average day laborer in Britain would consume between 37 and 47 grams per day of fiber.
Modern day Americans typically consume around 15 grams per day of fiber, with significantly worse digestion to show for it. Our stores are filled with remedies for the digestive ails of our society. Tums, a brand of calcium and soda tablets that are used to quell an acidic stomach sells about 175 million dollars’ worth of products per year in the US. Prilosec and Nexium together sell about half a billion dollars’ worth. Nobody is going broke betting on bad digestion.
Why is the diet so poor in fiber in the USA and the west? Well it’s primarily because our primary sources of calories either never had fiber (flesh foods, dairy and eggs) or have had most of the natural fiber removed (processed flour products, oils, sugars and protein additives). This problem is a substantial one and it won’t be fixed by the food industry or fiber bars or supplements.
There are many different ways that you can increase the fiber in your diet and improve your digestion. The problem is that the foods that are high in fiber are reliably lower in calories per pound. Since you will naturally gravitate towards foods that have higher calorie density, you have to consciously monitor your choices to try to get in more fiber than you do if you pick the food most appealing to you.
One of the easiest ways to increase fiber is to be sure that you take in around one to two pounds of unprocessed fruits and vegetables a day. This will add at least ten grams of fiber daily, and depending on the mix, could increase it as much as twenty grams.
Foods high in soluble fiber like quinoa, beans or oatmeal can give significant amounts of fiber to a fiber poor diet. A single eight ounce serving of quinoa adds five grams of fiber. A cup of oatmeal adds eight grams. One cup of beans adds seventeen grams. Just those three foods eaten daily would give you double the fiber intake of the average American.
“Sure,” you say, “I should eat more fiber and I will try to, but my digestion is fine. What benefits would I get?” How about a much lower rate of death from all causes? The drop averaged about 13% fewer deaths in a study from Zutphen in the Netherlands. The people were followed over forty years. Several other studies of long term dietary habits have shown similar results.
Both soluble and insoluble fiber are vitally important in our diet. Insoluble fiber, which we don’t digest, holds water and adds bulk to our stools. It keeps stools moving regularly through our gastrointestinal tract, preventing constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticulosis. It likely even decreases the risk of colon cancer, because dangerous substances in our diet move through our system more quickly, so have less time to be absorbed. Fiber feeds our gut bacteria, which play a major role in keeping us healthy. Food high in fiber satisfies us and keeps us satisfied longer, making it less likely that we will overeat. Diets high in fiber also appear to benefit our hearts, by decreasing inflammation and blood pressure. Soluble fiber, which forms a gel with water, helps lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar by slowing its absorption into the body.
The hard part though is getting yourself to the point where eating a lot of high fiber foods like beans, fruits and vegetables is a natural habit and not something you have to force yourself to do.
I think one of the easiest ways to make this change is to attend our classes! We have fabulous cooking demonstrations with each class and a chance to sample our food that manages to be both high in fiber and rich in flavor at the same time.