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Fiber for Health!


Fiber is essential for good health! Fiber refers to complex carbohydrates and lignin, which are not absorbed or digested, but rather used to help eliminate wastes from the body. Fiber is the part of plants that helps maintain the structure and strength of the plant. It cannot be digested by the human body and therefore is not converted into calories or energy for your body.

There are two different types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, both which have qualities that are essential to good health. The way to determine the difference between them is that soluble fiber dissolves in water, whereas insoluble fiber does not.

Insoluble fiber is the fiber that gives the plants their structure, and is made up of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. This fiber works as roughage by holding onto water and moving waste through the digestive tract. It increases regularity of movements as well as decreases constipation by bulking up the stools and carrying the waste through the colon. It speeds up the time that food moves through the body, and reduces the amount of time that harmful elements of waste interact with the intestinal lining. When stools move easily through the body, there is less strained movement in the intestines, thereby decreasing the risk of hemorrhoids forming. Insoluble fiber foods include; whole-wheat products, corn, bran, flaxseeds and many vegetables, like green beans, potatoes and cauliflower. The tough skins of fruits, vegetables and beans is related to the insoluble fiber in the food.

Soluble fiber is found in foods like oatmeal, and when it interacts with water it becomes viscous and gelatinous. This fiber is added as a filler to many foods to provide texture and you may identify this fiber on labels as 'gums, mucilages, and pectins.' People usually consume about three-fourths of their daily fiber as soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is found in oats, barley, psyllium seed husks, dried legumes, fruits and vegetables.

Fiber-rich foods include beans, fruits, vegetables and whole wheat products. Fiber also supplies lignan which is thought to potentially reduce the risk of cancers like breast, colon, ovarian and even prostate by reducing or blocking the estrogen activity in cells. Additionally there are other phytonutrients and antioxidants found in fiber-rich foods that are associated with a reduced the risk of other diseases. High fiber-diets are still being heavily researched with regards to cancer. Studies link high fiber diets to decreasing cancer risk in a number of different ways. By forming heavier and bulkier stools, fiber reduces the time it takes to pass waste through the digestive tract, decreasing the concentration of potential carcinogens. Insoluble fibers also keep the pH level of the intestinal tract in a healthy balance that decreases the ability of microbes to produce carcinogens.

In addition to decreasing risk of cancer, fiber is associated with heart health and helping manage diabetes! Soluble fibers may help lower the level of LDL cholesterol, thereby lowering total blood cholesterol. During transit through the small intestine, soluble fiber binds to cholesterol-rich bile acids which are then excreted by the body. This reduces the amount of cholesterol that is absorbed, causing the body to have to pull cholesterol from the blood to create more bile acids, replacing those that were excreted. With regards to diabetes, soluble fiber helps to manage blood sugars to be more stable and rise more slowly after meals. The idea is that soluble fibers lower blood sugar by mixing with fluids in the stomach to make the contents more viscous and gooey, thereby delaying the digestion time. The fiber in carbohydrates also causes sugar to be released slower, resulting in a slower rise of blood glucose levels after a meal.

Getting enough fiber in your diet can be hard, and changes depending on age and sex. The Institute of Medicine's recommended intake for total fiber for adults 50 years and younger as set at 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women. For men and women over 50, it is 30 and 21 grams per day, respectively, due to decreased food consumption.

Aim for a variety of fruits, vegetables (including their skins!) and whole-grain foods every day to reach your daily needs!

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Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.

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