You keep hearing fibre is good for you and that you should increase it in your diet for better digestive health. But, why?
There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre attracts water and is found in foods like oat bran, nuts, seeds, barley, beans, peas, lentils, and fruit. Insoluble fibre comes from plant cell walls and does not dissolve in water. It stays in tact when travelling through the digestive system and adds bulk to stools to help food pass more quickly. Wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains are sources of insoluble fibre.
Along with water, fibre is the nutrient that keeps things moving through your digestive tract. Without adequate fibre, you may be subject to experiencing constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and cancer (such as colon cancer). Other effects of a low-fibre diet are:
Toxicity, gut microbiome imbalance, parasites, fungus
Hemorrhoids, rectal fissures, diverticulitis, appendicitis
Loss of appetite due to feeling full from stagnation
Weight gain, distended abdomen
Tendency to form gallstones
High blood sugar (fibre regulates glucose in blood)
Let's take a step back and talk about your liver
Your liver is the powerhouse of your digestive system. It's located under your right rib cage and is roughly the size of a football. While your liver is mostly known for its superpowers of removing toxins from your body, it actually has over 500 functions (side note - be kind to your liver!).
Every time you eat a meal, your liver makes bile which is used to break down and absorb fats. Bile is mainly made up of phospholipids, cholesterol, conjugated bilirubin, electrolytes, and water. Throughout one day, your liver produces up to four cups of bile which is stored in your gallbladder when not needed for digestion. When it's time for bile to get to work, it makes its way to the first part of your small intestine (the duodenum) and breaks down fat into smaller pieces to ease digestion. While bile travels to your intestine, it carries toxins with it. These toxins will eventually be released from your body through bowel movements.
Why is this information important? To put it simply, if you are not having adequate bowel movements, toxic waste will gather in your colon and even travel back into your body. When toxin-concentrated bile recirculates through your system, it can lead to all sorts of inflammatory diseases such as intestinal inflammation, gallbladder disease, and even skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, and eczema (yup, these skin conditions are linked to inflammation in the body). How can you ensure you are having a healthy amount of bowel movements and ridding the body of toxins? Fibre and water.
The sexy topic of bowel movements
You may be asking yourself how many bowel movements you "should" be having in one day. The simple answer is: one meal in, one meal out. In other words, a healthy colon will excrete 2 - 3 bowel movements daily. A quick test to see if you colon is functioning well is the beet test. Eat a bowl full of beets and time how long it takes for the red stain to completely disappear from subsequent bowel movements. The optimal transit time after a meal should be 12 - 24 hours. If your results are longer than 24 hours, that indicates you are constipated.
Water and fibre go hand in hand
The fibre you eat absorbs water as it moves through your digestive tract. This helps form stools, making them bulky so your body can eliminate them with ease. This process occurs in the small intestine. The large intestine, known as your colon, pulls water from the stools to conserve it for your body. If you have not consumed enough mineralized water and are dehydrated, you will likely experience constipation.
How much fibre should I consume per day?
For adults, a daily range of 35 grams of fibre is recommended daily. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 require around 15 grams of fibre per day while those aged between 5 and 11 years should consume approximately 20 grams daily. For teenagers, it is recommended they have an intake of 25 - 30 grams per day.
Fibre intake during pregnancy
If you have experienced constipation during pregnancy, here's why. During the first ten weeks of pregnancy, the steroid hormone progesterone is produced in the ovaries. This hormone helps thicken a woman's uterine lining to help a fertilized egg grow into an embryo. In the later stages of pregnancy, the placenta synthesizes progesterone to help maintain a safe fetus. While progesterone takes on an important role during pregnancy, it also relaxes muscles in the gastrointestinal tract and slows down digestion which can lead to constipation. To avoid this, it is extremely important for a pregnant woman to ensure she is consuming enough fibre (and water) in one day. This attentive support given to her body will ease her of troubles when trying to go to the washroom.
Fibre in the later stages of life
It is important to note that many changes occur in your digestive system as you age. In terms of fibre, your body becomes less effective in absorbing and utilizing it. While this may be due to certain medications or inactivity, those over the age of 50 should do their best to make sure they are consuming enough fibre.
Understanding fibre nutrition claims
Have you ever picked up a packaged food that advertised "High Source of Fibre"? Let's break down what these claims mean.
Very High Source of Fibre: must contain a minimum of 6 grams
High Source of Fibre: must contain a minimum of 4 grams
Source of Fibre: must contain a minimum of 2 grams
Have a look at the "Nutrition Facts" label on a packaging to find out how many grams of fibre are present per serving. You should also read the ingredient list to ensure the fibre in a packaged food is a real, natural fibre and not added / lab-made fibre. When companies add synthetic fibre, they tend to also add other additives to make the fibre stick, provide extra flavouring, or prolong the shelf life. Common names for synthetic fibres in ingredient lists are inulin and xanthan gum.
Simple recommendations to increase your fibre intake
First of all, if you have a history of constipation, reach our to your healthcare practitioner and talk to them about a bowel cleanse. Feel free to also reach out to me if you have any questions.
To increase fibre in your diet, aim to eat a variety of foods like 100% whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, raw nuts, and seeds. Whole foods = whole nutrients. Don't forget to drink water.
My personal favourite way to add a quick boost of fibre in my day is by adding either ground psyllium hulls, chia seeds, or flaxseeds to smoothies or to a cup of hot water. It's important to note that if you're not used to a fibre-rich diet, slowly introduce fibre-filled nutrients. Otherwise, you may irritate your gut and cause some unwanted emergency trips to the toilet! If you have any known bowel problems, it would be best to stay away from chia seeds and flaxseeds for now. The first step would be to heal your colon. Chia seeds and flaxseeds are best for maintenance once bowel issues are resolved.
The bottom line
Many diseases prevalent in our society can be linked to an underactive colon. When toxic waste is not properly eliminated through stools, it is recirculated into the body and can contribute to many diseases. The key to increasing daily bowel movements to 2 -3 by consuming adequate fibre (35 grams) and mineralized water. .
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Book: Nutritional Symptomatology by Lynne Hinton BSc, BEd, ROHP, CHCP and Tracy McBurney, B.A., RNCP
Effects of dietary fiber and its components on metabolic health by James M. Lattimer and Mark D. Haub
Fibre intake for optimal health: how can healthcare professionals support people to reach dietary recommendations? by Nicola M. McKeown and colleagues
Recommended daily fibre intake by Canadian Digestive Health Foundation