Is it time for a gut check? As in, do you suffer from gastrointestinal issues and feel like you could use some help? You’re in the right place. Good gut health matters and many people suffer from various gastrointestinal problems. For instance, a diet filled with fiber helps improve gastrointestinal health by regulating bowel movements to reducing the incidence of diverticulosis and diverticulitis.
Fiber-rich diets also improve overall health in general, including the gut microbiome. Unfortunately, the average fiber intake by most Americans is only 15 grams. Yet the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) recommends 30 grams for women and 38 grams each day for men.
Facts about fiber
Fiber, the indigestible parts of plant foods – think of the thin strands in celery or the edible peel of fruit – plays a vital role in protecting you from heart disease, cancer, and digestive problems. Depending on the type – soluble or insoluble – it lowers cholesterol, helps with weight control, and regulates blood sugar.
Found only in plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, whole grains), fiber is an element our body does not digest. Instead, fiber passes quickly through your digestive tract, mostly intact, which is a good thing. The undigested fiber creates bulk, which physically helps move stools and harmful carcinogens through your digestive tract and out your body. Consuming a high fiber diet has been shown to reduce the risk of various health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease, constipation, and colon cancer. Our digestive system relies on fiber for sweeping up and out particles and compounds that could potentially cause health issues in the small and large intestine.
Fiber and your gut microbiome
Speaking of a healthy digestive tract, did you know this part of our body is home to about one hundred trillion bacteria made up of thousands of different species? This living, breathing, highly complex ecosystem that lives in harmony with us weighs on average about 4.5 pounds. Also known as the gut microbiome or gut flora, this ecosystem is now recognized as an additional organ system important in digestive health – it aids in metabolizing and absorbing nutrients from food, produces vitamin K, and acts as a protective barrier against intestinal infections, among other roles. These dynamic organisms vary by strain from one person to the next so that each one of us has our own unique microbiota. More and more studies are finding this community of gut microbiota may play a role in enhancing our immune functioning while reducing our risk of cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other health conditions.
What does fiber have to do with these trillions of bacteria living in your gut? Fiber plays a special role in boosting gut flora. The good bugs in your microbiota thrive on certain types of fiber found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. For example, inulin is a fiber found in high concentrations in onions, asparagus, and garlic. As fiber passes undigested through the small intestine into the colon, the bacteria there start to ferment it. As the organisms munch away, the fiber is converted into chemicals. This process helps lower inflammation while sealing the gut lining – which is necessary to protect bacteria from leaching from the intestines into the bloodstream, possibly leading to bloating, gas, or cramps for example.
Here’s another reason eating more fiber is good for gut health – studies have shown switching to either a plant-based or animal-based diet can significantly affect the number and type of bacteria. After just four days of increasing fiber from plant-based foods, the activity of fiber-fermenting bacteria increases, lowering your gut’s pH and balancing your good bacteria. So, if you like meat, be mindful of the portion size, and be sure to eat a dark leafy green salad filled with vegetable with it.
Time for a gut check
A healthy gut microbiome doesn’t just happen – it needs to be well fed to keep your bacteria plentiful. When your gut is happy, you are happy. Here’s how you can help make that happen:
- Do not overuse antibiotics as that can deplete good gut bacteria.
- Eat more fermented foods. Bacteria are living organisms that need to eat, and fermented foods encourage a diverse ecosystem. Naturally fermented foods include sauerkraut, pickles, miso, Greek yogurt, and kefir.
- Eat a high-fiber diet:
- Add beans or lentils to soups and salads
- Add fruit to oatmeal and yogurt
- Twenty-four almonds have 4 grams of fiber
- 1 cup of peas has 9 grams of fiber
- 1 cup barley has 6 grams of fiber
- 1 cup of raspberries has 8 grams of fiber
- 1 cup split peas has 16 grams of fiber
- 1 cup cooked lentils have 15.5 grams of fiber