Fantastic, Fundamental Fiber
Patients sometimes appear a bit surprised when their nutritionist asks about bathroom habits. Sometimes I get uncomfortable looks when I not only ask about bowel habits, but I get detailed with how much, how frequent, how easy, how difficult.
Bowel regularity provides so much information about someone’s life habits whether it be their stress or diet.
Many of our clients come with metabolic concerns including high triglycerides, high LDL cholesterol and low good cholesterol. If someone reports that they only eliminate every few days, this clues me in to either low fiber in their diet, and/or high stress or anxiety in their life. Both causes will impact overall health and weight.
Let’s talk about fiber first. We have soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Think of fiber as roughage that is found in plant food. Both forms of fiber are important for different reasons, but it is the soluble fiber that forms a gel-like consistency in the gut which helps bind to the cholesterol particles and helps draw bad cholesterol out through feces. This helps to prevent blood sugar spikes as well as improve cholesterol. Healthy bowel regularity and proper fiber intake helps to lower bad cholesterol but does not lower the good cholesterol.
Women need at least 25 grams of fiber per day and men need at least 38 grams per day. Soluble fiber is found in foods such as oatmeal, beans, lentils, and many fruits and vegetables. You might be thinking that these foods are bad because they are higher in carbohydrates. On the contrary! Diets that are too low in carbohydrates often result in constipation and low energy. Carbohydrates are not bad, but the source of your carbohydrate matters in how it affects the body. Studies have found that people who get enough daily fiber from whole food complex sources tend to have lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, healthier cholesterol levels and have a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and breast or colon cancer.
Most people unfortunately are not getting enough fiber because of consuming too many highly processed food-like products, rather than consuming whole healthy fibrous foods. If your body is used to only getting 15 grams of fiber per day, you may want to increase fiber slowly to help prevent drastic changes to your bowels or causing the side effect of feeling gassy or bloated. Your body will get used to more fiber in time and side effects will diminish.
Getting fiber from healthy sources does not have to be difficult. Some easy ideas include lentils, hummus, whole wheat wraps, a salad with mixed greens and vegetable variety, berries, avocado, whole oats and more. My favorite way to get fiber is through adding a tablespoon of chia seeds to my overnight oats. When chia seeds are soaked, they expand and make a texture much like a pudding. I might also put chia seeds on a salad. One tablespoon of chia seeds has 4 grams of fiber.
What if someone is getting enough fiber in their diet but is still having slow motility resulting in too few bowel movements? That’s when I will follow up with inquiring about stress, sleep, and anxiety. This is another surprise from clients when I am diving into discussions that aren’t directly related to food.
The gut and the brain are connected. You may have heard that the digestive system is called the “second brain.” When we have symptoms in our mental health, our digestive system will respond (or not respond). This is a result of stress impacting hormones which slows intestinal movement down. Stress also increases intestinal permeability which allows inflammation in the intestines and negatively impacts healthy bacteria in the gut. That is why constipation (or diarrhea) is a symptom of anxiety and stress. As a functional nutritionist, I will also work on stress reduction techniques with my clients to help resolve constipation. This may come in the form of talking about exercise as a coping skill, and/or focusing on deep breathing or other relaxing modalities. Not every habit that is discussed with a nutritionist is focused on just food or weight loss, but rather habits are developed to improve quality and longevity of life, in which case, the side effect just might be weight loss.
Often when people are constipated, they will take a fiber supplement, but never address the root cause of their constipation. While a fiber supplement may be needed and useful in the short term, it should not replace getting to the root cause of the constipation in the first place such as addressing fiber intake from foods and/or assessing stress and anxiety.
Tips for getting enough fiber in the diet:
- The amount of soluble and insoluble fiber varies in different plant foods. To receive the greatest health benefit, eat a wide variety of high-fiber foods.
- Switch to whole grains – look for breads that list whole-wheat flour as the first ingredient on the labels and have at least 2 grams of dietary fiber per serving.
- Lean on legumes – beans, peas, and lentils.
- Eat more fruit and vegetables.
- High-fiber foods are good for your health. But adding too much fiber too quickly can promote intestinal gas, abdominal bloating, and cramping. Increase fiber in your diet gradually over a few weeks. This allows the natural bacteria in your digestive system to adjust to the change.
- Drink plenty of water. Fiber works best when it absorbs water, making your stool soft and bulky.
Tips for managing stress:
- Engage in consistent regular exercise.
- Get enough sleep; 7-9 hours per night. Aim for a consistent sleep routine by laying down at a similar time every night and waking at a similar time each day.
- Practice deep breathing throughout the day. Long slow inhales through the nose and cleansing exhales out of an open mouth.
- Spend some time outside every day. Ideally get sunlight, but if that’s not doable, simply step outside anytime for fresh air.
- Balance blood sugar levels and assess nutrient status. Deficiencies in vitamin B, magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin C and iron can arise from heightened prolonged stress.
- Make self-care a priority. Spend time with people and doing activities that bring you joy.
Below is a sample menu that includes almost 40 grams of fiber to inspire some ideas
Weaving Fiber into your Day – Sample Meal Plan 39.8g fiber total.
Breakfast – Protein Oatmeal – 10.8 g/fiber
- ¼ cup whole oats – 3g
- 1 scoop collagen peptides
- 1 scoop Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder
- 2 tsp flaxseed meal – 1.8 g
- 2 tsp chia seeds – 3.3 g
- ¼ cup frozen blueberries – 2.7g
Snack – Greens Smoothie – 6.3g/fiber
- Greens – 2 celery stalks, ¼ of a cucumber, Handful of spinach, pinch of parsley – 2.5g
- ½ cup pineapple – 1.4g
- 5 oz Aloha Coconut Protein Drink – 1.5g
- 1 tbsp Hemp Seeds – 0.7g
Lunch – Wrap – 13.8g/fiber
- Xtreme Wellness Wrap – 11g
- 1 tbsp hummus – 1.2 g
- Handful of spinach – 0.7g
- ¼ red pepper slices – 0.9 g
- 3 oz chicken – 0g
Snack – Protein Flourless Pumpkin muffin – 3.3g/fiber
- Homemade with protein powder, almond butter, pumpkin puree, banana – 3.3g
- Chomp stick – 0g
Dinner – Chicken Burger – 5.0 g/fiber
- Homemade chicken burger patty with ground chicken, hemp seeds, carrots, mayo – 1g
- ½ cup couscous – 1g
- Homemade coleslaw, light dressing – 3 g