In this article you will learn:
How to make healthy choices for fiber sources
What various options are and what to look for
The top things to avoid when it comes to fiber decisions
Lazy Author Alert:
Some research is cited in this article, and it is based on years of practice, but if you want the full gory details then grab yourself a copy of my book, Dance Your Way Through Life: A No Bullshit Guide to Hacking Your Body, Mind & Soul for Success, where I share precise action plans, over 1500+ scientific references and a lot of nerdy biohacking goodies. Plus, you also get 30 minutes with yours truly to hash out your goals, so it's totally worth it.
This is going to be Part 4 of a 4 Part series. I will link the first article at the end for circularity. If you need help implementing these principles, don't be afraid to reach out. Below are my guiding rules for making healthy, lifelong choices with fiber:
Eat by the “PACO” rule - primitive, alkaline, colorful and organic. I learned about this idea from a book titled, The Holistic Dental Matrix by my friend and holistic dentist Dr. Nick Meyer. It is a fantastic resource to check out and upgrade your knowledge of oral health and care, and one of the important pillars of maintaining good oral health is watching what you eat. Today we tend to eat by the opposite of PACO - complex (processed), acidic, not-natural and toxic. I call this the CANT approach, because you simply can’t do it for long and expect good health or nice teeth. If you eat according to PACO as a general rule, you will obtain a good amount of fiber and nutrients in your diet without having to worry about what types of fiber or how much you got.
Another useful principle in getting your fiber requirements is to build a repertoire of nutrient dense foods rather than calorie dense foods. While it’s true that you can have a nutrient dense food that is not necessarily high in fiber, this general approach to your eating will guide you in the right direction. A bowl of kale, for example, is very dense in nutrients (like vitamins, minerals and fiber) whereas a bowl of chopped up pop tarts offers you lots of calories (carbs) without any nutrition. Generally speaking, deciding according to nutrients rather than calories is an important filter to use on a regular basis and one way to make sure you get fiber into your diet.
Do a little research on some of your favorite fruits and vegetables, as well as the carbohydrates you like to eat. It never hurts to get familiar with what you are eating and how it measures up, as well as what other options are there that could be a healthier choice and still satisfying. Based on what you find out, get a rough idea of how you currently fair with your fiber and what it would take to meet the daily requirement of about 25-35 grams per day, then make the changes.
Have a shake as one of your meals during the day and make sure it’s packed with high fiber fruits and vegetables, like avocado and pear. I try to do this every day and it’s a great way to sneak in some extra fiber as well as get more fruit and vegetable servings. Make it delicious and enjoyable and something you can look forward to.
Buy a fiber supplement. These can come in a variety of forms. My favorite are psyllium husks. These don’t sound too appetizing, and they do taste a little like cardboard, but you can mix them with some juice or put them in your shake and it’s a great way to get your fiber requirement easily. Psyllium is a plant that grows abundantly in different parts of the world, with the seeds being used for animal feed and the husks being ground up into a powder and sold as a fiber supplement.
A few more interesting things about psyllium are as follows:
Psyllium behaves interestingly when it’s placed in water. Because it is mostly soluble fiber, it draws water into the colon and forms a gel-like substance, stimulating gut movement and adding bulk to stool. Interestingly, psyllium husks benefit both diarrhea and constipation, and they seem to have an “adaptive” effect depending on your situation because they regulate both stimulating and inhibiting receptors in your gut.(1) If you do use psyllium husks, make sure you drink plenty of water and drink them quickly. If you do not delude the amount you put into your cup with lots of water, it will form a gel and be much harder to down.
Psyllium husks have shown great promise for reducing blood pressure, improving cholesterol and blood sugar and even helping people with irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis.(2-6) In one rat study, psyllium reduced the incidence of colon cancer compared to control or cellulose (another plant fiber) when the rats were exposed to a carcinogen,(7) although this hasn’t been studied in humans yet.
Another very important consideration with psyllium is that it is a different kind of fiber than most of the ones that cause bloating. These short-chain, highly fermentable fibers are found in many healthy foods like beans, green onions, various fruits, grains and so on. This is the “FODMAP” classification of foods and it is often suggested to do a “low FODMAP” diet as a temporary treatment for IBS or SIBO symptoms since these foods aggravate symptoms through their rapid fermentation. This is a very difficult diet to do, since many of these foods are healthy and common, but the point is that psyllium has a different structure than these fibers and is not easily fermentable despite being a soluble fiber. This results in lower gas production, regularity and the benefits of fiber without the worry associated with consuming it.(8)
Because psyllium makes a sort of gel compound with water, I was worried that it somehow may affect the absorption of nutrients but this isn’t the case. Research has shown that the gel-like effect may slow down the absorption of nutrients, but it doesn’t affect the total absorption.(9) In other words, because food is moving slower through your small intestine (due to the fiber), it slows the rate at which the nutrients get absorbed but it does not interfere with the actual absorption process itself like phytates or oxalates do. I also believe that psyllium helps to form structured water, since its gelling effect is similar to what chia seeds do and those have been reported to create structure water. I don’t have any scientific proof for this, but I personally like the slight gel texture and it feels like it’s hydrating me more. Maybe I’m just weird.
For all these wonderful benefits, there are little to no side effects with psyllium husks, although they may have some minor interactions with digoxin (a heart failure medication), some diabetes medications and tricyclic antidepressants when taken at the same time. If you have severe inflammation or structural abnormalities, using psyllium husks may lead to bowel obstruction if you aren’t drinking enough water, although there aren’t that many cases of this ever happening. There are many ways to obtain psyllium, such as powder or in capsules, but the key is to find something organic and to start off with a small amount so you can see how you do.
The only real gripe I have with psyllium is that it sticks to the container you put it in, making cleanup a real necessity every day. Still, it’s a small drawback for all the perks.
Another supplemental option for extra fiber that has a similar effect are chia seeds as they are about 35% fiber by weight.(10) To get your daily requirement of 25 grams, that’s just 5 tablespoons of chia seeds a day (about 75 grams). There are also prebiotic fiber mixes that contain fibers like inulin, a special type of soluble fiber. Remember that under the fiber umbrella there are actually several different types of fiber, so you will see many combinations out there. Get something from a reputable source with organic and quality ingredients and make sure that your microbiome and digestive system is balanced, otherwise taking these on a regular basis may lead to overgrowth.
Make sure you stay hydrated to help things move along. Extra fiber needs extra water to work its best, so keep your water intake high as a good general Practice.
Try to eat resistant starch at least a few times per week. Remember that you can create this simply by cooking a starchy food like rice, potatoes, oats or legumes (beans). You can also consume it by adding hi-maize flour or green banana flour to your shake. In general, I use white rice or sweet potatoes for my resistant starch needs. For sweet potatoes, the white variety have a lot more resistant starch than their orange cousins,(11) but if you are going organic and following the PACO rule it’s still going to do you some good. For rice, I choose white rice over brown rice. Believe it or not this choice is grounded in health, but I do enjoy the taste of good quality basmati or jasmine rice as well.
There are two main problems with brown rice and I will explain them below:
The first is that brown rice, although a whole grain and by definition offering a more complete nutritional profile, contains an anti-nutrient called phytic acid. This compound interferes with the absorption of minerals like iron and zinc(12) and is relatively higher in concentration in the bran of rice compared to other foods that have it.(13). It may also interfere with digestion in general. Because phytic acid is common in many other foods, reducing your overall consumption where you can may be a worthwhile consideration to your digestive system.
Unfortunately, there are no clear cut answers and there is also research and discussion that phytic acid may be beneficial in certain cases as an antioxidant, in cancer prevention, kidney stone prevention, prevention of cardiovascular disease and helping with insulin resistance.(14) You can also reduce phytic acid through cooking, sprouting, soaking or eating plenty of Vitamin C in your meal.
And while phytic acid is definitely a consideration with brown rice, the real reason I choose white rice is because of arsenic. Unfortunately, rice is one of the biggest sources of arsenic for a variety of reasons ranging from how it is grown, the contaminated water in the area and the nature of rice itself.(15) Certain plants absorb different nutrients from the soil, and rice tends to take in more arsenic. Because brown rice is the “whole grain”, it actually contains more arsenic than white rice,(16) which has been stripped of the parts that have it.
I eat several servings of rice per week as my main starch, and I also use a protein powder that is based on brown rice protein. Because of these reasons, I chose to opt for white rice so I can minimize my overall exposure. The impact of the starch on blood sugar is reduced by creating resistant starch, and I also usually eat my rice with vegetables (high in fiber) and fat which further reduce the glycemic load. You can reduce the arsenic content in rice by washing it thoroughly (I wash three times) and making sure your cooking water doesn’t have arsenic in it either through a simple water test or by using a nice filter that does the job.
Overall there is no right Path, but there is one that you choose. There are reasons and arguments to go with everything you do, the key as an empowered health manager is to know why you do what you do and always be able to adjust if necessary. There are many health benefits of using brown rice over white rice and there are also many potential concerns. Everything comes with a dark and a light side, a cost and a benefit. Choose according to good principles, like PACO, and worry less about the individual details because the bigger picture always seems to figure itself out.