I know, you probably think you have heard enough about fiber over the years. Well guess what, you haven’t. We certainly talk a lot about fiber but Americans continue to eat less than is recommended. The average American maybe eats 15g of fiber per day, and we are supposed to get at least 25-38g (female vs male) in a 24-hr period. That might even be conservative given that fiber intake in other cultures can reach levels much higher.
Previously we have always hyped up fiber for its benefits in weight control, heart health, and digestion. It helps to keep us full, which decreases overall caloric intake, and fiber is associated with improved cholesterol and blood pressure. Fiber also bulks up stools and helps keep us regular. Clearly, it is an essential part of our diet.
But its importance is becoming even clearer as we delve deeper into the studies on the complex system of microbes living in our digestive tract, the “microbiome” as we call it. Study after study is showing that the type of microbes living within us either contribute to good health or detract from it, and studies also show that the types of foods we consume, particularly fiber, play a huge role in determining its overall influence.
For example, a recent study came out showing that walnuts might help support healthy flora in the gut.1 Rats given diets supplemented with walnuts showed an increase in the diversity of bacterial species in their guts over the non-supplemented animals. Walnuts acted as a pre-biotic food, feeding the beneficial bacteria and helping their colonies increase. While we have many known prebiotic foods already (I have handouts on these!), walnuts, at least to my knowledge, have never been on that list. Better get to adding it!
So yay, walnuts are good. But the thing is, as more of these studies are done, I think we will find that all fibrous foods are prebiotic to various extents. In fact, diversity of fiber is probably the key to optimal diversity of gut microbes. These one-off studies, while helpful no doubt, are to many people a simple suggestion to add a few more walnuts here or there, or whatever food the researchers are reporting on that week.
In reality, the take home message is that we need lots of fiber, every day, from whole foods sources, and we need to get rid of the non-fibrous, nutrient-empty foods that clog up our diet. A handful of walnuts in addition to your morning bagel and venti coffee is not going to cut it. We need to be intentional about the choices we make and ensure our meals are full of diversity and fiber.
What does this look like? I think that is the biggest hurdle for most. The grocery stores are not exactly helpful in this area as they seek to entice us with processed and “convenient” options, most of which are extremely low in fiber. Meals still can be quick, but you have to think ahead and make careful choices. To get you started, here are a few ideas:
1. Yogurt bowl: Grass fed Greek yogurt with ¼ cup granola, 1 tbsp flax seed, 1 tbsp hemp hearts, ½ cup blueberries, ¼ cup chopped walnuts, 1 tbsp honey
2. Oatmeal: ¾ cup oatmeal with 1 tbsp flax seed, 1 tbsp hemp hearts, ½ cup berries, ¼ cup chopped walnuts or other nut, 1 tbsp honey or maple syrup. Alternatively, instead of oats, use cooked quinoa as your base and add same ingredients.
3. Egg scramble: 2 eggs, 1 cup diced mixed veggies, ¼ cup grated cheese, ½ banana on the side
4. Toast & Fruit: Piece of whole grain toast with 1 tbsp almond butter with apple slices or other fruit
5. Chia seed “pudding”: Chia seeds soaked in coconut milk, then add ingredients just as you would with the yogurt bowl
6. Breakfast smoothie: Milk of your choice, protein powder, frozen berries, 1 tbsp flax or chia, handful of spinach or kale, sweetener if needed (try stevia)
7. Egg “hash:” Take cooked kasha groats and top with egg cooked sunny side up, add black beans or baked sweet potato on the side.
1. Sandwich: High fiber whole wheat bread with deli meat or PB&J.
2. Wrap: Whole wheat or gluten-free tortilla w/ hummus, leafy greens, deli meat
3. Soups: chicken/veggie, bean soup, etc
4. Stir-fries over quinoa or brown rice
5. Pasta using whole wheat noodles and meat/veggie sauce
1. Piece of fruit with handful of nuts
2. High fiber protein or granola bar
3. Kale chips
4. Homemade whole wheat or bran muffins
5. Veggies dipped in hummus or bean dip
See? So many options besides cereal or the morning pastry. A million more ideas instead of hamburgers or grab n’ go sandwich on white bread. You just have to be intentional. No, most often you cannot simply walk into a store or restaurant and find one of these options on your way into work. You have to plan ahead and do a little prep in advance.
Remember, health doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it. Anyone training their body for an athletic event knows this. It’s the same with your diet. YOU have to make it happen. So no more excuses about not having time or not being to find these things at your local Starbucks, ok?
Go to the grocery store after work and have these ideas ready to go. Pack along a cooler or other mode of food transport so you can take these things with you. Do not let others dictate what you eat for sake of convenience. Make it happen! Your body (and especially your gut microbes) will thank you.