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Benefits of fiber - still unconvinced?

How long does it take to recognise the benefits of fiber in the diet?

If you switch from refined foods like white rice, white bread and refined noodles, to high fiber foods like brown rice, wholemeal bread and wholewheat noodles, you will feel the benefits within days.

The benefits are just so obvious. Click here to read about how quickly the benefits of fiber in whole grains can be felt.

Yet do you know how long it took nutritionists, doctors and other medical experts to recognise the benefits of eating a high fiber diet? 10 years? 20 years?... Even 200 years is not long enough!

For well over 250 years, ever since the refining of grains became more widespead, there had been an intense debate about the benefits of fiber.

All along, natural health advocates had been saying that high fiber foods like whole grains are healthier. And all along, nutritionists and other medical "experts" asserted that fiber was "useless" - because their scientific studies "prove" that fiber provides "zero nutrition" since it is not absorbed by the body during digestion.

It was only during the 1970s that the scientific community began to talk about fiber and examine its possible benefits to health. Up till the mid-1980s, I was still reading leading medical experts proclaim that the benefits of fiber "have not been scientifically proven".

Today, there is no more debate - except maybe in the details about the exact extent of those benefits, such as whether a high fiber diet really protects against colon cancer. Or, there may be some disagreement over whether too much fiber might be harmful, and how much is too much.

But overall, there is wide consensus that fiber imparts a wide range of health benefits; it is absolutely vital for health and well-being.

Still unconvinced?

Yet the vast majority of people - maybe more than 95 percent of the population - continue to eat mainly low-fiber refined foods like white bread, white rice and refined pasta.

I, too, am often "guilty" of eating refined foods. Usually, I do so out of convenience. But in the case of pasta, most of the time I deliberately choose refined pasta because I have yet to find a really good quality wholewheat pasta.

Most other people, however, remain either ignorant or unconvinced about the benefits of fiber.

Sorry to say, even government health authorities seem unconvinced. In dietary guidelines issued by various health authorities such as the US Department of Agriculture, the recommendation is usually just to eat "grains" as the main food. There seems a great reluctance to recommend whole grains that are truly high in fiber.

In Singapore where I am, the Health Promotion Board launched a health campaign in 2009 to encourage greater consumption of whole grains. And I was glad to note recently that in hospital canteens, consumers actually get a 30 cent discount as incentive for choosing high fiber foods like brown rice and brown rice noodles.

This is a positive move in the right direction. But I still asked... What took the Health Promotion Board so long? Never mind the debate over the past 250 years, but hadn't the health benefits of fiber been already well-established by the early 1990s?

Let's now take a closer look at the main benefits of fiber:

Bowel movement

Fiber plays a major role in regulating bowel movement and preventing constipation - provided you take adequate water and other fluids (tea, soup, etc) with your high fiber foods. If not, you may still end up with constipation or even worsen the condition.

Preventing constipation and having regular bowel movement, however, is not just about avoiding discomfort in the toilet. The benefits of fiber extend way beyond providing comfort.

Firstly, it means a cleaner colon and a cleaner body, because toxic waste matter gets discharge quickly. Not suffering from constipation also means that there will not be pieces of hard, compacted stools stuck to the walls of the colon. People who have ever done colonic irrigtation (I had it done twice) might find such pieces coming out. These could have been there for years or decades.

Apart from promoting bowel movement, fiber also speeds it up. Humans and plant-eating animals have very long digestive tracts (from mouth to anus) about 10 to 12 times the length of the body, while meat-eating animals have digestive tracts only about three times the length of the body.

Fiber regulates the time that food stays within the digestive tract. On the one hand, by bulking up when it absorbs water, fiber slows down the movement of food in the bowels. On the other hand, fiber also ensures that the food moves along and does not get stagnated, rotten - producing harmful bacteria - and smelly! So if you have smelly stools, it is one sure sign that you need to eat more high fibers foods like whole grains, beans and vegetables.

A healthy colon

The bottom line is that you get not only a cleaner colon, but also a healthier colon that is able to perform its tasks more effectively. A major task is the absorption of nutrients from digested food as well as the elimination of toxins from the body. Fiber further helps toxin elimination by binding toxins.

In addition, certain important vitamins like Vitamin K and some of the B vitamins are produced in the colon, along with some short-chain fatty acids that are also vital to health.

A healthy colon is, of course, one without disease. More than just preventing constipation, the benefits of fiber includes helping to prevent a whole range of bowel disorders and diseases:


Another role of the colon is that it is the breeding ground for "friendly" bacteria - about 100 trilion of them, 10 times more than the number of human cells that make up our body. These friendly bacteria play a big role in supporting the body's immune system, by crowding out harmful bacteria.

Indirectly, by supporting colon health, the benefits of fiber also include immunity enhancement.

The growth of friendly bacteria depends on fermentation and this requires soluble fiber - the type found mainly in grains (especially oats), pectin from fruits like berries and apples and the fiber in gums such as psyllium and guar gum.

Insoluble fiber - in vegetables, wheat bran, nuts and seeds - are also important. Their main role is to take the stools more bulky and less hard. This will ensure that fermentation also takes place at the end of the colon, so that the entire colon benefits. This will help prevent problems at the end of the colon, such as rectum cancer.

Weight control

Scientific studies consistently show that people who eat a high fiber diet are slimmer than those who eat little fiber. This is probably due to the fact that insoluble fiber bulks up when it absorbs water, thereby giving a sense of fullness so that the person does not over-eat.

It is more than that, however, because even when they eat a lot, people on a high fiber diet still remain slim. One explanation is that fiber reduces the absorption of calories from food.

Heart disease prevention

Although fiber merely passes through the digestive tract and does not get absorbed by the body, for some reason the benefits of fiber includes helping to prevent other diseases as well. This should not come as a surprise if one accepts the idea that food affects health - because fiber affects how our food is digested and absorbed.

In the case of heart disease, a number of studies have shown that people on a high fiber diet face much lower risks of developing heart disease as well as dying from heart disease. One California study of 31,000 Seventh Day Adventists - who are vegetarians - found that simply switching from white bread to wholemeal bread was enough to reduce their heart disease risks by 44 percent, and their risks of dying from heart disease by 11 percent.

In fact, the medical community took no interest in fiber until after the 1970s - particularly during the 1980s and 1990s - when scientific studies showed that a high fiber diet helps reduce the level of blood cholesterol - which many doctors believe is linked to heart disease. Many of those studies were conducted on the soluble fiber in oats, but, as noted above, the benefits of fiber come from both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Diabetes prevention

Another major disease that high fiber foods help to prevent is diabetes. Here again, the benefits of fiber are evident even from minor changes. One clinical trial conducted in Germany found that obese men and women who ate fiber-enriched bread for just three days showed significant improvement in insulin sensitivity.

One reason is that fiber slows down the digestion of carbohydrate foods like whole grains, thereby decreasing the Glycemic Index - the rate at which carbohydrates are digested and converted to blood sugar.

In macrobiotics, the recommendation for people with diabetes is to avoid refined grain products like white rice and white bread, and to switch completely to whole grains like brown rice and wholewheat bread. People who follow such a diet have successfully reversed their diabetes, either totally or at least to the extent that they can reduce their dependance on insulin injections and diabetes drugs.

Unfortunately, the current popularity of the Glycemic Index theory has led many doctors and health teachers to instead recommend that diabetes sufferers eat very little carbohydrates, including both simple and complex carbohydrates.

This is a big mistake because carbohydrates are the most important foods for humans. They are the principal foods of almost all human communities. Rather than avoid carbohydrates, we should be eating high fiber foods to enjoy the benefits of fiber from whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits.

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