As February reaches its end, we set our eyes on the potentially warmer horizon of March and springtime.
As we celebrate the month of green and four-leafed clovers, I would like to mention that March is also National Nutrition Month. And what a great time of year to encourage wholesome and balanced eating as the ground around us begins to showcase its vibrant colors and show off its delicacies.
Most of the time, we know that fruits and vegetables are “good for us.” However, the struggle comes when we try to understand why eating plants is so important. If we understand why it is so important to consume produce (and whole grains, for that matter), we might find ourselves eating more whole fruits and vegetables each day. And we actually might find ourselves feeling better, as a side effect.
This week we will start with the basics. Fruits and vegetables are a great way to keep the waist trim, the stomach full and the body functioning through life’s highs and lows.
Plants naturally contain fiber , which is a calorie-free, indigestible complex carbohydrate that lines the inside of plant cells. Although dietary fiber (fiber naturally occurring in foods) does not have any nutrients in and of itself, fiber is necessary for biological functions. Adequate fiber consumption has been shown to help lower the risk for some chronic diseases like heart disease, diverticulitis and constipation/ hemorrhoids, and it can help with improved diabetes management.
There are two kinds of fiber: insoluble and soluble, equally important. Both remain undigested throughout their entire course in the body. Insoluble fiber helps with constipation by moving bulk through the intestines, aiding in bowel regularity. Insoluble fiber also functions to control proper pH balance (the acidity) of the intestines by removing the toxic waste through the large intestine in less time, speeding up the elimination process. Efficient bowel regularity can help prevent colon cancer, as the acidity (the pH) is kept at its optimal state so to prevent cancerous substances being produced from microbes.
Sources of insoluble fiber:
>> Dark green, leafy vegetables.
>> Root vegetables.
>> Fruit skins.
>> Kidney beans.
>> Whole-wheat and wheat bran products.
>> Seeds and nuts.
Soluble fiber is the fiber that has been thrown into the heart-health limelight, being shown to help lower cholesterol by lowering the amount of LDL (low density lipoprotein), or “bad cholesterol,” in the bloodstream. When mixed with a liquid, soluble fiber forms a gel and binds with bile acids (acids made in the liver helping to break down fats). When there are less bile acids available, the liver then pulls cholesterol from the bloodstream to make more, therefore lowering the amount of cholesterol in the blood. In turn, this can lower your risk for heart disease. The mixture of fiber and bile acids is then pushed through the colon and excreted, therefore decreasing the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Soluble fiber also helps delay stomach emptying, which is actually helpful for people with diabetes. This delayed emptying helps slow the rate of carbohydrate absorption from the foods we eat into the blood stream, which helps improve blood sugars, possibly even reducing the amount of insulin needed to help manage diabetes. Fiber’s delayed emptying effect can help keep you fuller, longer, which helps with unnecessary munching and weight management.
Sources of soluble fiber:
>> Oats and oat bran
>> Kidney beans
>> Flax seed
>> Psyllium husk (often found in fiber supplements)
The daily recommended intake for fiber is 25-40 grams of total dietary fiber. Women’s needs are on the lower end; men’s need are on the higher end.
Things to remember when increasing your fiber intake (because we all know why fiber is important now):
>> Increase your fiber intake over a period of six to eight weeks to avoid heavy cramping, gas and bloating. As the body gets used to higher fiber intake, these potential “side effects” usually disappear.
>> It is VERY IMPORTANT to drink water . Fiber holds water, which helps soften stools. Therefore, drinking plenty of water will help prevent painful constipation and hemorrhoids.
>> A diet high in fiber is typically lower in heart-harming fatty and processed products, which can help with the waistline and heart health.
>> Eating fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack helps increase your intake without having to look to fiber supplements.
>> Eating a mixed and balanced diet will have foods with both insoluble and soluble fiber.
>> Switching to whole grain products also will increase your daily fiber intake.
Fiber is only one benefit from a more plant-centric diet, so look forward to next week’s article highlighting the importance of vitamins and minerals.