Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

Fanmail: Fiber

The word fiber inspires fear in many, conjuring images of chalky, orange-flavored powders, capsules that promise smooth texture, bland Digestive ...

Nov 14, 2015

Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
The word fiber inspires fear in many, conjuring images of chalky, orange-flavored powders, capsules that promise smooth texture, bland Digestive biscuits, bran cereal, prunes and those Jamie Lee Curtis commercials for supplemented yogurt. Saturday Night Live made those ads famous when Kristen Wiig dressed up as a Curtis who suffered from embarrassing and uncontrollable bathroom needs. The spoof was a joke both on the silver-haired actress’s age and overplayed commercials in which brands make exaggerated health claims, but it was also a commentary on the fact that nobody wants to watch someone else eat a food with the word “fiber” emblazoned across its packaging. The type of person who consciously eats the stuff suffers from humiliating consequences and is too nerdy, or old, to recognize their loss of face.
Fiber’s image crisis is deeply connected to a misunderstanding of the functions and importance of this vital macronutrient. The truth is, fiber is incredibly important to the human body and not just for digestive health. The nutrient also reduces cholesterol, makes you feel full and slows the release of sugars from food into the blood, thereby reducing the risk for heart disease, obesity and diabetes. According to the World Health Organization, World Cancer Research Fund, Cancer UK, Institute of Medicine and numerous other health organizations, fiber also reduces the risk of breast cancer and colorectal cancer, the same type that the WHO announced two weeks ago is associated with consistent consumption of processed meats.
Reactions to the WHO announcement clarified for me part of fiber’s upstaging in the macronutrient arena, particularly by protein. The WCRF was just one of many institutions that responded by defending meat’s virtues. Meat “is a good source of nutrients including protein,” the cancer research organization wrote, so processed meat is part of a “healthy, balanced, diet.”
The reality is, hardly anybody living in the developing world is suffering from a protein deficiency. Those who are also suffer from malnutrition and insufficient caloric intake in general.
According to a 2013 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 97 percent of the U.S. population, including vegetarians, eats enough or more than enough protein. The macronutrient most of us desperately need is actually fiber; 97 percent of U.S. Americans, again, do not meet minimum recommendations, nearly the exact percentage of Emirati boys who do not eat enough of the rough stuff.
Studies suggest that this is a pattern across developed countries, particularly those in which people eat Western-style diets, such as the U.K., Australia and France. However, in developing countries such as Brazil, fiber intake is also inadequate. The health care cost of inadequate fiber consumption is huge: In the U.S., it is conservatively estimated that increasing fiber intake to minimum recommended levels would save 12.7 billion USD annually.
The fact that almost everyone concerned with nutrition prioritizes protein consumption over fiber — vegetarians, think about the first question you’re asked when you tell someone you don’t eat meat — is telling, but not surprising.
The cost of protein per gram is significantly higher than the cost of fiber per gram: Think about the price of whey protein, steak, tuna fish, eggs or chicken breast compared to apples, lentils, oats and peas. It’s much more lucrative for corporations to push our need for protein than cheap ingredients we associate with lima beans and shame.
But consumers are smart, and cost should be on fiber’s side. This insight, coupled with the statistic that 53 percent of U.S. Americans think that steak is a good source of fiber — for the record, no animal products contain any fiber — moves me to advise: Fiber proponents, find new P.R. guys. Oscar Meyer has the cancer people defending them, protein powder companies are making people pay through the nose for their overnourishment and steak has stolen your beat. Do you really think fiber-fortified Splenda packets and the mom from Freaky Friday are making the cut?
The reason that fiber is associated most predominantly with digestive health rather than its other more profound benefits is not random bad luck. The misrepresentation dates to before 1970, when nobody studied other effects of fiber because the belief that it was only important for laxative effects was so dominant. In the early ‘70s, though, doctors noticed that in Western countries, where people typically consumed inadequate levels of fiber, people suffered from many chronic diseases that were not prevalent in regions in which people ate fiber-rich diets.
In industrialized countries, for example, diverticular disease, a condition that affects bowel function and that can be prevented with adequate fiber intake, affects up to 70 percent of people over the age of 60 years old. Diverticular disease is not found in significant numbers in less developed countries. A flurry of new research into the role that fiber plays in other health conditions has ensued, and even though results were impressive, common wisdom has done its damage. The reputation of fiber has not been raised from the dead.
Fiber is found in all vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, and not in any animal byproducts. Studies show that to access the full range of health benefits, consumption of about 30 to 35 grams daily is necessary, about three times of fiber that the typical U.S. American eats today.
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble: The former absorbs water, while the latter does not. Think about what happens to oatmeal when you soak it in a bowl of water compared to what happens to an artichoke, which is one of the most fiber-rich veggies. About one quarter of daily dietary fiber intake should be soluble, but the rest, no surprise here, should come from unprocessed fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. The good news is that almost all plants contain both types, so you don’t need to plan out your daily breakdown when you reach for fiber-rich foods.
That’s the uncomplicated stuff. But in a technical sense, people still don’t really agree about what fiber is. For starters, institutions have differing definitions for its dietary necessity. Some, such as the WHO, do not even recognize fiber as a macronutrient, naming only carbohydrates, proteins and fats, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes water and fiber as nutrients of maximum import.
One of the boards tasked with sorting out all of this confusion is the Panel on the Definition of Dietary Fiber, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Institute of Medicine of National Academies. Their job is to figure out what fiber means — and yes, they think fiber is a macronutrient. But they, too, are afflicted by unsexy fiber politics.
In most countries, dietary fiber is defined as non-digestible foods of plant origin. This is the kind that has been linked to health benefits such as cancer and diabetes protection. In the U.S., though, there are pushes to consider functional fiber a category, so that non-digestible animal foods such as connective tissue can be counted. Other functional fiber sources include chitin and chitosan, which are made of the exoskeletons of crabs and lobsters and are used to preserve packaged foods and beverages as well as to absorb liquid in sponges and tampons.
When scientists force feed rats high amounts of functional fiber, they often get sick. The only reason I can figure out the fiber panel’s advice to create such a category is that these ingredients are already in processed foods, albeit in small amounts, and companies want to claim that their products contain something healthy. Since connective tissue and exoskeleton are, like plant fiber, technically indigestible, they sort of count, right?
This background points to the trend of extracting nutrients from their natural, whole-food sources, tweaking their definitions and isolating and powderizing them. We put indigestible lobster shell in crackers, drink water mixed with bulky orange powder and apparently buy tubs of something called Fitness Fiber in attempts to improve our health.
When we overdo it, we again turn to pills to solve the problem, popping Beano, the popular brand of fish gelatin capsules that contains the enzyme alpha-galactosidase, to reduce gas. Similar to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and Food Rules, I wonder, whatever happened to eating things that grow from the ground?
Chances are, each of us could bulk up our fiber intake. Add fiber-rich plants to your diet slowly, and increase the water you drink. Consider yourself warned to not make the transition too quickly. Don’t worry about overdoing it; no studies have shown adverse effects of consuming excessive fiber, and indeed, consuming too much is a challenge given how full it makes you feel. If you’re not yet convinced that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are good for you, that fiber prevents disease or that these types of foods are incredibly affordable, did you know that constipation claims more than an average of one and a half years of your life on the toilet?
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