Dietary fiber – what are the health benefits?

dietary fiber - bowl of high-fiber cerealI often hear people saying that we should all have more fiber in our diet. They also tell us what types of food are high in dietary fiber.

What they don’t usually do is explain what dietary fiber is or why we should have more of it in our diet. So I thought I would look into it.

What is dietary fiber anyway?

Dietary fiber is often described as “roughage”, and it is said to “add bulk” to the diet. But what does this mean?

The fiber in our diet comes from the fruit and vegetables that we eat. The key to dietary fiber is that we aren’t able to digest it. Some of the plant materials in fruit and vegetables can’t be digested by humans, which means that they go right through your digestive system without being broken down. But what is the point of that?

Fiber provides “bulk” in the diet

Bulk? Since we can’t digest fiber it stays bulky, and this is important for the way it works to keep us healthy.

Being indigestible means that it holds on to some things we eat and stops them being absorbed into our bloodstream. That’s also helpful.

So here are 7 health benefits of dietary fiber:

1. Fiber promotes peristalsis and prevents constipation

Say what? Peristalsis is what pushes food through our intestines. This means that if we have enough fiber in our diet then our food will be pushed through our digestive system more quickly.

So what? If our food is pushed through our digestive system quickly that means we are less likely to become constipated.

Ever taken laxatives? Well how about thinking about eating more dietary fiber instead?

2. Fiber holds on to water

Fiber keeps our stools (that’s feces, doo doo or whatever) moist by reducing the amount of water that gets taken out of them as they are passing through our colon (large intestine).

Moist stools are bulkier (so they move through faster) and easier to pass, so reducing the risk of constipation (again).

3. Fiber prevents hemorrhoids (that’s piles)

When we are constipated and our stools are hard and dry (which they become when they move slowly and water is removed quickly) we tend to strain. Straining can lead to hemorrhoids.

So more frequent visits to the bathroom, and stools that are moist, means less chance of constipation. Thanks fiber!

4. Fiber reduces bowel disease and bowel cancer

If you have a look at a picture of the colon (large intestine) you will see that it has folds and pockets all along its length. Food residue can get stuck in these pockets.

These food residues irritate the walls of the intestines causing inflammatory bowel disease, and cancerous chemicals (carcinogens) can form as the food residues decompose, which can cause bowel cancer

Dietary fiber being so bulky means it scrapes left-behind food residues from our intestines, which reduces the risk of inflammatory bowel disease and bowel cancer.

5. Fiber prevents appendicitis

Have a look at a picture of the digestive system. The point where the small intestine connects to the large intestine is called the cecum. Hanging from the cecum is the a little bag-shaped pouch called the appendix, and I’m sure you’ve heard of that.

No-one seems to know what the appendix is for, but it can certainly cause us problems.  When food residues get stuck in the appendix it can become inflamed, which is called appendicitis.

Appendicitis is very painful and very dangerous, because if it causes the appendix to burst there is a real risk that we could die from the complications.

Guess what? Dietary fiber helps to keep the appendix clean, protecting us from appendicitis.

6. Fiber reduces the risk of having a heart attack

Fiber from your diet holds on to cholesterol and other fats that you eat as they pass through your intestines. This reduces the amount being absorbed through your intestines into your blood.

This means that less of the cholesterol and other harmful fats that we eat get absorbed, so less of it ends up in our bloodstream clogging up our arteries.

Remember, clogged arteries means increased risk of heart attacks.

7. Fiber makes you live longer. Really?

Quoting from just one scientific study in the Journal of the American Medical association in 2011, “our study shows that dietary fiber may reduce the risk of premature death from all causes, especially from CVD (coronary vascular disease) and infectious and respiratory diseases.

That’s really something. Check it out here – Dietary Fiber Intake and Mortality in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.

So there we are. 7 ways that increasing your intake of dietary fiber can improve your health, all topped-off with a proper scientific study that says it can make us live longer.

So what are you waiting for?

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