A few questions that come up frequently when someone is looking to transition to a paleo lifestyle are related to fiber:
- How will I get enough fiber if there are no grains allowed?
- Don’t “whole grains” and fiber help fight cholesterol?
- Don’t I need a certain amount of fiber in order to stay regular?
- What are the best sources of fiber if I’m going paleo?
- Fiber helps keep me full and is good for weight loss, right?
A lot of the information you’ll read about fiber is not far off base – fiber does help with satiety, constipation, and regular bowl movements, cholesterol, and a whole host of other ailments. In this article, we’ll answer some of the questions above.
What is fiber?
You can break fiber down into three main sources: soluble, insoluble, and resistant starches. No single source is better than any other, and all are valuable in their own way when it comes to having a well-rounded nutrition plan. Most food that contains fiber contains both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Fiber is an indigestible type of carbohydrate often found in the cell walls of plants, making it readily available in many fruits and vegetables. You’ve probably read or been influenced by many “health expertswill know that the benefits of fiber rich whole grains do not outweigh the damage and disruption they can do to the lining of your gut. Below you’ll find some recommendations as to how you can get your fiber in, protect your gut, and still stay paleo.
Soluble fiber: This dissolves easily in fluids, is known to lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL), and helps to regulate blood sugar. Soluble fiber also slows down stomach emptying, which can help to keep you feeling full longer. This type of fiber may also help your body to absorb certain vitamins and minerals. That said, it can also keep other important vitamins and minerals from being absorbed (more on this later).
- Traditional sources of soluble fiber: Oatmeal, lentils, psyillium, beans, and oat bran
- Paleo friendly sources of soluble fiber: Strawberries, nuts, seeds, cucumbers, celery, carrots, blueberries, apples with the skin on, sweet potatoes, yams, and other root vegetables
Insoluble fiber: This does not dissolve easily in liquids, and has a laxative-like effect because it adds bulk to stool.
- Traditional sources of insoluble fiber: Wheat and wheat based products, legumes, corn bran, and veggies like green beans
- Paleo friendly sources of insoluble fiber: Cabbage, beets, carrots, and Brussels sprouts
Resistant starches: These starches are not digested in the small intestine, and are found in potatoes, pasta, unripe bananas, and various legumes like navy beans. They can also come in the form of non-digestible carbohydrate sources typically extracted from plants or animals, and then manufactured: psyillium husks, fructooligosaccharides, and polydextrose for example.
Fiber, your gut, and digestion issues
Fiber plays a very important role in proper digestion. It can help to feed the healthy bacteria that your gut needs in order to run optimally. Because over 70% of the body’s immune system is found in your gut, proper care is needed in order to become or remain a healthy individual.
If you’re suffering from any of the following:
- Fatigue after eating
- Constant hunger
- Irregular bowel movements
- Muscle and joint aches
- Neck, or upper or lower back pain
The Standard American Diet, which is high in industrial seed oils like corn, cottonseed, and safflower, Omega-6 fatty acids, and inflammatory foods like wheat products containing gluten, coupled with modern medicines and antibiotics, has nearly destroyed our guts. Add on stress, hormonal imbalances, pregnancy, and thyroid complications due to the modern lifestyle, and you have yourself a recipe for poor gut flora and broken digestive systems.
One way you can begin to fix your gut health and digestive system is by eliminating toxic foods:
- Cereal grains (especially refined flour)
- Omega-6 industrial seed oils (corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, etc.)
- Sugar (especially high-fructose corn syrup)
- Processed soy (soy milk, soy protein, soy flour, etc.)
Many of us have various food sensitivities, with some of the more common culprits being dairy and gluten. Removing some of these items, and including fermentable foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir might just do the trick in restoring some healthy gut bacteria.
You can also help to improve your health by including the right kinds and amounts of fiber. The Institute of Medicine recommends around 38 grams of fiber for men, and 25 grams for women on average per day. Although it is not entirely necessary to hit these numbers, a paleo approach to eating will get you pretty darn close if it doesn’t exceed them.
A 1,000 calorie serving of fruits and vegetables will provide you with roughly two to seven times the amount of fiber than whole grains would. Plus, most of this fiber is from soluble sources which are more beneficial in that they feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Soluble fiber ferments in the gut, and turns into short chain fatty acids that, in turn, help to grow, and feed healthy bacteria.
By including more green leafy veggies, root vegetables, and tubers like sweet potato and carrots, as well as low sugar fruits like berries, you can not only add more fiber to your diet, and improve gut health, but improve vitamin and mineral uptake and absorption. Because of phytates and gluten found in foods like beans and various wheat-based products, many vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc can go unabsorbed.
The vegetables and occasional fruits on a paleo diet supply more than enough fiber to your body. Actually, ¾ cups of cooked broccoli would supply you with seven grams of fiber and only 30 calories, while it would take two slices of “whole grain” that equal 120 calories to supply the same amount of fiber.
Constipation and regular elimination
If staying regular with your bowels is a major concern, I suggest first taking a look at your water consumption. Dehydration or a lack of water is usually to blame for a poor digestive system. It is also very possible that the grains, dairy, and legumes you were used to eating caused leaky gut. The best way to combat this is by removing the foods most harmful to the digestive tract like industrial seed oils, grains, dairy, and legumes, and by allowing the good bacteria and intestinal flora to reset themselves, and repair the gut lining.
75% of stool is dry weight or dead bacteria, which means that fiber is not needed for bulk and elimination. It can definitely assist, but is not a requirement. As long as your body maintains healthy gut flora, and you stay away from food that body does not tolerate well, and high fructose foods like soda, honey, agave, breakfast cereals and bars, and processed snacks, you should be able to avoid constipation, gas, and bloating.
Many so-called health experts recommend taking supplementary fiber products to assist with weight loss, the lowering of cholesterol, and constipation. The problem with this is that your body, or, more specifically, your colon, can become addicted to these products, and require more and more of them.
If you are following a lower carbohydrate diet, and are struggling with the regularity of your bowel movements and cholesterol, first try slowly increasing your water intake by about eight ounces per day. Then think about adding in more starchy and fermentable foods like sweet potatoes and carrots. Finally, if those things do not help, or if you have blood sugar issues, and can not include starchy carbohydrates, think about adding in a soluble fiber supplement like Organic Acacia Fiber, or a prebiotic like Klaire Labs Biotagen. In both cases, begin supplementation with a very low dose, and gradually increase weekly or bi-weekly.
Fiber and cholesterol
This might be the one thing that frustrates me more than anything else in the world of nutrition. I would like to kick the people who started this rumor in their junk. I just want to touch on a couple things here.
- Cholesterol is not bad. Your body actual needs it in order to operate efficiently. Cholesterol is used to make cell membranes, which are used to help every single cell in your body move, and interact with the other cells.
- The cholesterol you eat has almost nothing to do with the cholesterol in your blood. You ingest cholesterol, and create your own cholesterol every day. Roughly 25% of your daily cholesterol is from the food that you eat, and the other 75% is actually made by your body. Most of the cholesterol you eat and produce every day resides in your cell membranes. It is actually serving a purpose.
- Cholesterol in your blood doesn’t mean cholesterol in your arteries. When you get your cholesterol checked, what is measured is the amount of cholesterol in the blood. The truth is that there is no way of knowing if that cholesterol is going to end up in your arteries or not.
- Most of the cholesterol you eat is pooped out. There is no other way to put it really. Most cholesterol you eat is not absorbed – it leaves the body in your stool.
Actual causes of heart disease are rooted in inflammation. This is due mostly to the overconsumption of Omega-6 fats from grains, vegetable oils, and grain-fed animals. One way you can help to combat this is by eliminating these foods from your diet, and including more healthy Omega-3 fats from wild-caught salmon, supplementing with fish oil, and eating more grass-fed beef and lamb.
Instead of counting up fiber grams, mixing up high fiber supplement shakes, taking in absurd amounts of grains or legumes, or searching for fake foods with added fiber, instead get back to eating real food. Emphasize green leafy vegetables, lower sugar fruits like berries, and fermentable starchy carbs like sweet potatoes and carrots, increase that water intake, get regular exercise, and, for Pete’s sake, get your rest, and practice proper stress-relieving techniques like meditation. Not only will that keep you regular – it’ll keep you healthy, happy, and fit as well.
Bonus: If you’re looking to get your digestive system on track, try our 7 Day Meal Plan.