The Fiber Facts Your Body Will Thank You For

Jun 30, 2017 by

You can have me read this article to you instead of reading it yourself…

Or you can read it the old-fashioned way below…


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It seems that everywhere we go we are bombarded with recommendations regarding how much fiber we should eat, or what type of fiber to eat.  Some of the products that we see on the grocery store shelf even try to sell themselves based on how much fiber they contain.  And then there are the fiber supplement products we find in the drugstore aisle.

So what gives?

This is actually a pretty simple topic once it’s broken down.  The problem is, that it’s never broken down!  Not even by your doctor when he sends you home with a diagnosis.  And definitely not by the cereal box on the shelf.

Types of Fiber

There are two major categories of fiber, and for the purposes of managing a chronic GI condition, those are the only categories that really matter.  But they are very important, because they serve almost opposite purposes.

Insoluble Fiber

This is exactly what it sounds like – fiber that doesn’t dissolve.  This matters because it means that this fiber stays in your GI tract, from the moment you eat it until the moment it exits with your stools.

This type of fiber is incredibly important for keeping your stools moving through your intestine.   If you don’t have much in your intestine, then it doesn’t have anything to push through it.  However, because this fiber doesn’t dissolve, it provides bulk, or substance, for your intestines to push along, moving everything else along with it.

This bulk helps to prevent constipation AND diarrhea.  Having bulk there allows your intestine to clear everything through more consistently, reducing the frequency of your intestine ‘backing up’.  In the same way, the bulk helps to prevent diarrhea because it thickens the stool that might otherwise have been very liquid-y (because remember – it is insoluble).

Soluble Fiber

So….you guessed it!  This type of fiber dissolves.  This means that it is actually absorbed from the intestines and into the body.  Whereas insoluble fiber only works in the GI tract, this one goes on to work in other parts of the body.

One of the great things that soluble fiber can do is bind to fatty acids and cholesterols, pulling extra fats and cholesterols out of the body for us.  This can actually lower cholesterol levels, which is why you will hear people say things like “fibers make your heart healthier!”.  It’s not quite a perfect relationship, but the two are definitely related.

The downside of soluble fiber is that it doesn’t benefit the GI tract the way that insoluble fiber does.  In fact, soluble fiber can actually slow your stomach down.  So if you already have slow emptying, this doesn’t sound so great.  It also doesn’t really make a difference for constipation or diarrhea, and does nothing to keep you regulated.

The Moral of The Story?

If someone is encouraging you to eat fiber to keep your stools regular (the most likely reason to hear about fiber if you have a GI condition), then they’re talking about insoluble fiber.

If someone is encouraging you to eat fiber to keep your heart healthy, then they are referring to soluble fibers.

It is important not to confuse these two fibers when you are managing a GI condition, considering that one can make you feel better, and one can make you feel worse.  But it is still important to make sure that you are getting some of each, since they are both important to your health.

Where Should I Get My Fiber?

First, I’ll provide a basic list of where you are most likely to find the two types of fiber in your diet…

Insoluble Fiber:

  • Vegetables (green beans and leafy vegetables)
  • Fruits (primarily from the skin)
  • Whole wheat breads and other products
  • Seeds and nuts

Soluble Fiber:

  • Oats
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Nuts
  • Barley
  • Fruits (from the body of the fruit)
  • Flax seed

As you can see, fiber abounds in a typical diet.  It comes from all kinds of sources, and is easy to get even for people with restricted diets or food allergies.

There are even times when you will find both soluble and insoluble fibers in the same natural package, such as in a fruit with a peel (like an apple or pear).  Or you may find them rolled together in one product, such as whole grain bread that also contains seeds and/or nuts.  These combinations are great for your body and your health, but they may be difficult for some people to digest.

Making Fiber More Edible

There are ways to make certain fibers more digestible.  For instance, steaming vegetables does not eliminate their fiber content but it sure does make them easier to eat.  And overripe fruits are much easier for the stomach to digest because they are already soft and partly broken down.  But they still contain the same amount of fiber in their bodies and their peels.

If you feel like you have trouble eating fiber, try to pinpoint which product upset your stomach.  These foods are all very different, and it might not have been the fiber that set you off at all.  For those with food sensitivities or IBS, it may have been an entirely different ingredient in the food.  For those with gastroparesis, it may have been the form that the food came in, such as an uncooked vegetable or barely ripe fruit.

Fiber Powders

It is also possible to get fiber by supplementing with powders.  But it’s important to recognize that these powders usually provide soluble fiber.  For instance, Metamucil (the orange container) is one of the most popular fiber powders.  It contains psyllium husk, which is a fully soluble fiber, making it better for those that are trying to improve their heart health, not their bowel movements.  Another example of a popular soluble fiber is Benefiber, or wheat dextrin.  Again, this is better for heart health than for stools.

Citrucel, on the other hand, is made of methylcellulose, an insoluble fiber, which makes it a great option for people that are trying to make their bowels more regular.  Konsyl, or polycarbophil, is another insoluble fiber option, much like Citrucel.  These both come in tablet or capsule forms, too, which can be a nice alternative to the fiber powder.

In Summary

Both forms of fiber are important to our health, for very different reasons.  For those with GI conditions, insoluble fiber is particularly important in helping us to manage our symptoms.  Be creative about where and how you take your fiber, so that you can be sure you are getting enough to manage your symptoms  and stay healthy!

The American Heart Association recommends getting about 25g of fiber per day, and that should be a mix of insoluble and soluble fiber.  But I wouldn’t recommend counting your numbers just yet.  For now, simply focus on trying to make sure that you are getting some fiber, and that there are forms of it that you can tolerate.  Once you have that down, you can make sure that your bowels are regular, and then you can focus on getting the right proportion and the right amount on a daily basis.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate more nutrients into your diet, I have a piece on that here.  I also talk about manipulating your food to make it more digestible in this article.

And of course, as always, you can sign up for my newsletter at the top right of this page so that you can receive updates on new articles as they are released.

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