Twenty-Five Surprising Benefits of  a Dietary “Non-Nutrient”

It’s not a “sexy supplement” or a “new breakthrough.” In fact, it’s not even officially classified as a nutrient. But Americans get only 10% of the amount we consumed 100 years ago, and our health may be seriously suffering as a result.

What is this important “non nutrient” that we’re missing? Dietary fiber.

“Fiber” refers to a number of indigestible carbohydrates found in the outer layers of plants. Humans lack enzymes to break down most types of fiber, so they pass through the digestive system relatively unchanged and do not provide nutrients or significant calories.

In spite of this indigestibility, fiber has a surprising number of health benefits. In fact, consuming adequate daily fiber may be one of the most important health measures anyone can take.

Twenty-Five Health Benefits of Fiber — Who Knew?

There are numerous “sub-classes” of fiber, but the two main types are I.) soluble and II.) insoluble fiber. Both types are beneficial to health and both typically occur together in nature. They each offer independent health benefits. Here are twenty-five known health benefits that fiber provides.

Bowel Benefits:

  1. Relieves constipation. Insoluble fiber absorbs large amounts of water in the colon. This makes stools softer and easier to pass. Most people who increase fiber intake will notice improved bowel function in 31-39 hours.(1-4)
  2. Relieves diarrhea. It may seem paradoxical that a substance which helps constipation also helps diarrhea, but that’s just what fiber does. Insoluble fiber binds watery stool in the colon, helping turn “watery” into “formed.” Fiber is known to offer significant improvement to those with diarrhea.(5,6)
  3. Helps prevent hemorrhoids. Constipation is a leading cause of hemorrhoids. Because fiber-rich stools are easier to pass, less straining is necessary. Diets high in fiber have been shown to prevent and relieve hemorrhoids.(7)
  4. Reduces risk of diverticular disease. In cultures that consume high-fiber diets, diverticular disease is relatively unknown. That’s because high fiber intake “exercises” the colon, prevents excess bowel gas and absorbs toxins, all of which lead to the “bowel herniation” disease known as diverticulitis. Increased fiber intake is currently recommended in Western medicine as primary prevention for the disease.(8,9,10)
  5. Helps Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is characterized by constipation, diarrhea, or alternating constipation/diarrhea. Regardless of type, increased fiber intake has been shown to improve IBS symptoms.(3,11-14)
  6. Improves bowel flora. “Flora” refers to the “good bugs” (healthy bacteria) that colonize the large intestine (colon). Antibiotics, drugs, food allergies, high sugar diets and junk food alter this “bowel garden” in favor of the “bad bugs.” Certain types of fiber are rich in substances the “feed” bowel flora and help keep the balance of good bacteria in the colon at a normal level.(4,15)
  7. Helps prevent colon cancer. Although research has been controversial, observational studies in the 1970s showed that African natives consuming high-fiber diets had a much lower incidence of colorectal carcinoma.(16) Since the “risk” of increased fiber consumption is so small, the “US Pharmacist,” states…

“…with no clearly negative data about fiber, it makes sense to increase fiber intake just in case the positive studies did reveal an actual link. The patient will also experience the ancillary benefits of fiber consumption, such as reduction in cholesterol (with psyllium), prevention of constipation, and reducing risk of hemorrhoids.”

  1. Appendicitis: studies show a correlation between the development of appendicitis and low fiber intake. A diet high in fiber may help prevent appendicitis.(59)

Whew… that’s just the bowel benefits!
Fiber also helps prevent heart disease in multiple ways.

  1. Lowers Total cholesterol. According to the FDA, soluble fiber meets the standard for reduction of risk from coronary heart disease.(15,16) Psyllium husk is also able to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease as it contains a soluble fiber similar to beta-glucan.(17-26)
  2. Lowers triglycerides. Higher dietary fiber is associated with lower triglyceride levels.(24-26)
  3. Raises HDL. Fiber may even raise HDL — the “good cholesterol” — levels.(27)
  4. Lowers LDL Cholesterol. In addition to total cholesterol, increased fiber lowers LDL — the “bad cholesterol” — levels.(28-29)
  5. Aids Weight loss. Fiber helps prevent weight gain and assists weight loss several ways. The “bulking action” of fiber leads to an earlier feeling of satiety, meaning that one feels satisfied with less high-calorie food when the meal contains a lot of fiber.(30,31) Fiber helps bind and absorb dietary fat, making it less available for assimilation. This means that some fat may be “lost” through the digestive tract when the meal is high in insoluble fiber.(32)
  6. Lowers Overall risk of Coronary Artery Disease. Perhaps because of a combination of the above-listed lipid-normalizing factors, some studies have shown an overall protective effect of higher fiber intake against coronary heart disease.(33)

Fiber also benefits blood sugar levels and diabetes…

  1. Helps Type I Diabetes. Eaten with meals, high-fiber supplements like guar gum reduced the rise in blood sugar following meals in people with type 1 diabetes.(34-35) In one trial, a low-glycemic-index diet containing 50 grams of daily fiber improved blood sugar control and helped prevent hypoglycemic episodes in people with type 1 diabetes taking two or more insulin injections per day.(36)
  2. Improves Type II Diabetes. High-fiber diets have been shown to work better in controlling diabetes than the American Diabetic Association (ADA)-recommended diet, and may control blood sugar levels as well as oral diabetic drugs.One study compared participants eating the the ADA diet (supplying 24 grams of daily fiber) or a high-fiber diet (containing 50 grams daily fiber) for six weeks. Those eating the high-fiber diet for six weeks had an average 10% lower glucose level than people eating the ADA diet. Insulin levels were 12% lower in the high-fiber group compared to those in the ADA diet group. The high fiber group also had decreased  glycosylated hemoglobin levels, a measure of long-term blood glucose regulation.(37)

    High-fiber supplements such as psyllium(38),  guar gum(39) and pectin(40) have shown improved glucose tolerance.(20, 26)

More systemic benefits of fiber:

  1. Gallstone prevention. Rapid digestion of carbohydrates leads to fast release of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream. In response, the body releases large amounts of insulin. High insulin levels contribute to gallstone formation. Because dietary fiber slows the release of carbohydrates (and corresponding insulin), fiber helps prevent gallstone formation.(41-43)
  2. Kidney stone prevention. Low intakes of dietary fiber have been found to correlate with increased kidney stone formation, and higher intakes of fiber appear to be protective against stone formation.(44-46)
  3. Varicose veins. “Straining at stool” caused by fiber-deficiency constipation, has been found in some studies to cause varicose veins.(47) Populations with lower fiber intakes have higher rates of varicosities.(48)

Fiber may even be important in prevention of certain types of cancer…

  1. Colon Cancer Prevention. Diets higher in fiber have been shown in some studies to reduce the risk of colon cancer.(49-51)
  2. Breast cancer prevention. Higher fiber diets are associated with lower breast cancer risk.(51,52) Some studies have shown up to a 50% decreased risk with higher fiber intakes.(53) After diagnosis, a high fiber diet may decrease the risk of  breast cancer reoccurrence.(54)
  3. Pancreatic cancer prevention. High fiber diets are associated with lower risk of pancreatic cancer.(55)
  4. Endometrial cancer prevention. Higher fiber has been shown in some studies to protect against endometrial cancer.(56)
  5. Prostate cancer prevention. Diets higher in fiber may be associated with lower risk of prostate cancer.(51,57) After diagnosis, a high fiber diet may decrease the risk of  prostate cancer reoccurrence.(54)
  6. Cancer prevention in general. Some studies have found that high fiber diets help prevent cancer in general, regardless of type.(58)

Recommendations vs. Reality

The average daily American fiber intake is estimated at 14 to 15 g, significantly less than the American Dietetic Association recommendation of 20 to 35 g for adults, 25 g daily for girls ages 9 through 18 years and 31 to 38 g for boys ages 9 through 18.(60-61) The American Heart Association recommends 25 to 30 g daily.(62)

Based on dietary intakes of long-lived populations (who typically consume 40-60 grams or more of fiber per day), many holistic physicians recommend aiming for a minimum of 30 grams of daily fiber.

In my clinical experience, I find that most people over-estimate their fiber intake because they are unaware of the fiber content of many of the foods they eat. See how your food choices stack up here: Rate Your Plate – It’s fun, educational and surprising!

Since fiber has proven itself to be such an important “non nutrient” for good health, increased dietary consumption and/or supplementation can be considered a wise choice for optimal health and disease prevention.

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