Mom's right. Eat more veggies.
The first three months after I gave birth to my son, I became obsessed over poop. How often our son had a bowel movement, the quality, the quantity were frequent topics of discussion in our household. He had one terrible bout of constipation when we switched him from breast milk to formula and I’ve never been the same since. I still remember his tears, the screaming, the digital disimpaction. After that incident, I made a pledge that in this household, thou shall not constipate. So here I am today, fiber policing my family with every meal.
It’s not easy. I know it’s weird to feed my kids leftover spinach with their cereal in the morning, but hey, whatever it takes to get them going right? My boys are older now and of course, they question everything I do and say. Recently, my oldest tried to protest over finishing his broccoli. “Well, what’s the point of eating this when I’m going to poop it out anyway. I mean, why even spend energy to chew this when I get no nutritional value for it?” I guess I could have easily let it go by telling him, “Because it’s good for you. And because you’re going to eat it because I said so.” Nope. The opportunity was too good to let it pass. So instead, I went into a 5 minute spiel about the benefits of dietary fiber.
There’s really not a whole lot of mystery as to what fiber is. At some point in our lives, we’ve learned that dietary fiber is the portion of plants that can not be broken down by the digestive juices in our gastrointestinal tract. There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gummy like gel. Soluble fiber is what is found in fruits, oats, peas, beans, vegetables, some nuts like almonds, flax seeds, and barley.
Insoluble fiber is what we often refer to as roughage because it does not dissolve in water. Some sources of insoluble fiber include whole grain, wheat, corn, bran, rye, vegetables like celery, green beans, and skin of fruits like grapes and tomatoes. These indigestible complex sugars hold onto water, bulks up our stool and makes it softer and easier to pass.
So, for most people eating 25 to 35 grams of total dietary fiber with plenty of fluids helps them poop.
I could have ended my tirade there, but instead I continued my monologue to introduce benefits of dietary fiber that might interest my son later in life.
Like for example, remember the transformation of soluble fiber into gum-like material in water? Well, eating soluble fibers found in beans, oatmeal, or apple skin help to slow down the transit rate of food in our guts. This may contribute to the sensation of feeling full so we are less likely to snack between meals. So eating a high fiber diet may help us achieve our weight loss goals.
For diabetics, the soluble fibers also slow down the nutrition absorption rate so that glucose absorption is slower. This helps prevent blood sugars from rising too quickly. The American Dietetic Association recommends foods such as cereals, oatmeals, and beans with relatively high soluble fiber content as staple components in the diet of diabetics.
Adequate fiber intake appears to be important in gut health. Many studies have shown an association between the intake of a diet high in fruit and vegetables and protection from colorectal cancer.
But wait, there’s more! The benefits of fiber don’t stop at the gut. Compared to folks who eat a low fiber diet, those who eat a high fiber diet are associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Fiber from grain rather than fruit appear to be more strongly associated with heart healthy benefits.
Are you sold yet on the 25 to 35 grams of dietary fiber a day? My son was, or at least he appeared to be. A few words of caution: if you plan to increase fiber in your diet, remember to increase your intake slowly. Dietary fibers undergo fermentation by bacteria in the colon, which creates a more acidic colonic fluid. This acidic environment helps prevent bacterial overgrowth. This fermentation also produces gases which may cause bloating and are passed as gas. Not good. Oh, and if you plan to take dietary fiber supplements such as psyllium, remember to drink plenty of fluids. Inadequate hydration with dietary fiber supplements can cause constipation or even bowel obstruction.
Ok, so this is not meant to be like an overzealous infomercial pitch. Dietary fiber should be part of a well balanced diet. There is no single cure-all. Healthy lifestyle changes are important but remember to work with your doctors and dietician to optimize your well being.