By Anna Herby
When you look at chronic disease rates in more rural, less-developed countries and compare them to the United States, the contrast is stunning. Take Uganada, for example. Coronary Heart disease, one of the number one killers of Americans, is practically non-existent. In a 26-year window of research and medical practice, there was only one documented case of heart disease in the country. But when the western diet started to encroach into African culture, heart disease went from being virtually non-existent to being an epidemic. In straying from their traditional, fiber-rich diets of whole grains and starchy root vegetables, individuals found themselves with the same illnesses we have here in the United States.
Why is this? Some researchers have pointed to the drastic increase in animal fat consumption of Western Society, while others point to lack of dietary fiber. On the flip side, diets high in fiber, like those in traditional, rural Africa, have been linked to weight loss, improved digestion, lower cholesterol, decreased risk of heart disease, better blood sugar control and decreased risk of diabetes.
Let’s take cholesterol, for example. You’ve probably seen the commercial cereal advertisements where they tell you that eating the cereal will help lower your cholesterol. It’s because the product is made out of oats, and oats have fiber. An even better way to lower your cholesterol is to simply eat the oats!
Here’s how it works. Cholesterol floats around in your blood stream, periodically coming back to the liver to be repackaged. There’s a natural check-and-balance system in our body that maintains a healthy level of cholesterol. When the liver notices there is too much cholesterol, it sends some out in the form of bile, which is released into your gut when you eat. So, let’s say some oatmeal makes its way through your stomach and into your intestines. It gets all mixed up with bile, digestive enzymes, and extra cholesterol. The fiber from the oatmeal binds to the cholesterol and clings to it all the way down. Eventually, you excrete the fiber in the form of feces and cholesterol leaves your body with it.
This happens not only for cholesterol but other toxins as well! This includes excess hormones like estrogen, which can play a role in developing breast cancer. The liver sends all the extra, toxic stuff out of your body. But if there isn’t enough fiber in your diet to help it move all the way out, it will just get reabsorbed. Fiber helps to keep your body clean and functioning smoothly.
The next great thing about fiber is that it serves as food for the bacteria in your gut. Your gut bacteria work hard to break down fiber long after you’re done with your meal. A byproduct of these helpful bacteria having something good to munch on is a substance called propionic acid — a short-chain fatty acid that gets absorbed in the colon. Once absorbed, it works in the bloodstream to do some pretty cool things. First, it goes to the liver and talks to an enzyme that’s involved in the process of making brand new cholesterol, telling it not to make quite so much. The result is even less cholesterol in your bloodstream.
Second, propionic acid has a way of slowing down the rate of gastric emptying, meaning food stays in your stomach a little bit longer at the next meal. This leads to a slower absorption of glucose and subsequently a more stable blood sugar and insulin level. This is especially good for people who are diabetic or have problems with insulin resistance.
And there’s more!! Fiber is found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. These just happen to be the most nutrient dense foods around. They’re the only foods that have not only high levels of vitamins and minerals, but also special health-promoting components called phytochemicals. These compounds have been shown to be protective against a plethora of common diseases including Alzheimers, cancer and depression.
The more of these plant-chemicals we can eat, the better. By keeping our digestive tract happy and healthy (through eating lots of fiber!) we’re better able to absorb nutrients from the foods we eat, allowing them to do their job inside our bodies to protect us from disease, decrease inflammation and help us recover faster from everyday activities.
The recommended daily amount of fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Here’s a sample day of food that’s easy to make and will give you even more than the recommended amounts.
(find the recipe for Lentil Artichoke Stew here!)
It’s easy to reap the benefits of a diet high in fiber if you focus on eating as many whole, plant foods as possible. Don’t be fooled by marketing techniques and labels that advertise product as high in fiber. The best sources of fiber don’t have any labels at all and are found either in the produce section or the bulk aisle of the grocery store. Here are a few examples: oats, brown rice, quinoa, millet, potatoes (with the skin!), sweet potatoes, whole grain sprouted bread, kidney beans, black beans, lima beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, zucchini, kale, squash, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, corn, apples, oranges, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, plums, peaches, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds. The list goes on. But just remember – the more plant foods in your diet, the better!
The health section on SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com is sponsored by Sky Island Organics