It used to be thought that the health benefits of fiber were limited to lowering cholesterol and improving constipation. Now it is recognized that fiber plays a much more active role by feeding our healthy biome – the bacteria that live and grow in our intestines.
In our gut there exists a whole ecosystem of microorganisms referred to as the micro biome. This biome consists of beneficial and harmful microbes that are constantly battling each other. When the “good guys” win, we are healthy. When the “bad guys” win, we get sick.
Growing research is pointing to a whole host of chronic illnesses and conditions that seem to be connected to a healthy (or unhealthy) gut biome. Since the 90’s, studies have correlated a healthy biome with improved immunity. More recent studies suggest that the health of our gut may play a role in diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and perhaps some cancers. A poor mix of microbes in the gut may encourage obesity. A new study found that eating less fiber and more sugar is associated with disrupted sleep.
The foods we choose to eat also feed our gut microorganisms. And what the bad guys like is very different than that of the good guys. The bad guys like concentrated sweets, fried foods and other high fat foods. The good guys on the other hand like fiber, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In an odd sort of way, doesn’t this sound like that old image of the angel and the devil sitting on our shoulder and vying for us to make the right choice?
Current trends in the diets of industrialized nations have shifted away from fiber and whole foods to diets containing more sugar, fats and less fiber. Consistent with these changes are rising obesity rates and increased health problems. It’s not just about calories and weight gain. We also need to win the battle in the trenches by eating more whole foods, fiber, fewer sweets and fewer fried foods to improve our overall health.
Sugary snacks, desserts and sodas, fried foods, fatty meats, cheeses, sauces/gravies, dressings and condiments are all helping the bad guys. Do I have to be a vegetarian? No. But choosing lean meats (not fried) most of the time and managing the serving size so as to include other plant foods in the meal will improve our micro biome and our health. Replacing concentrated sweets with fresh fruit can reduce sweet cravings and feed the good guys with fiber.
A healthy micro biome needs daily intake of vegetables, fresh fruits and whole grains. Look for whole grain cereals that have at least 5 g of fiber/serving and that have the fewest ingredients listed. Fewer ingredients means the cereal is less processed and closer to the original grain. 100% Whole grain breads contain all of the original parts of the grain and good choices have 3 g of fiber/slice. The best source of fiber among vegetables is legumes, that is all beans and peas that we shell. Bean soups, like the one featured today are a good way to include legumes, vegetables and modest meat portions into a low fat, single dish meal.
If you’re a number counter, most adults need about 30-35 grams of fiber per day. Otherwise, just focus on increasing your plant food intake and reducing sweets and fats.
Fiber foods that feed our micro biome are referred to as pre-biotics and this is one way to help the good guys win. We can also deliver reinforcements to the good guys by consuming pro-biotics, foods like yogurt that contain live cultures. Both pre and pro-biotics improve the health of the micro biome and are good choices for everyday health. And remember, when the good guys win, we win!
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with over thirty years experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He is a Nacogdoches resident and currently hosts the locally produced TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations which can be seen on Sudden Link Cable channel 2 in Nacogdoches.