The current health and nutrition climate is focused on food and supplements as a means of achieving positive health outcomes. This approach is ideal because food and nutrients work in the body to do both good and harm. As the Father of Modern Medicine once said, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Nutrition either adds to or takes away from our health.
As the Ketogenic Diet continues to grow in popularity the focus on removing carbohydrates from the diet, to whatever degree, is gaining attention once again. Reducing carbohydrate intake has its benefits, including a reduced waistline. However, there is often a missing link to the low carbohydrate diet that may boost health benefits even further.
This often overlooked nutrient is fiber. It is commonly misunderstood or dismissed but its benefits to overall health are vitally important. There are certain thoughts that the term fiber conjures up at first. It makes you instantly think of the powdered supplement your grandmother added to her tea, the broccoli you swore you’d die before you ate, or simply increased “regularity.”
These initial thoughts are very accurate, but the depth of fiber goes well beyond these few statements. When coupled with a low carbohydrate diet the benefits of fiber seem almost too good to be true.
The Double-Edged Sword of Fiber
To fully understand and appreciate the full depth and benefits of fiber it is important to get a full understanding of what fiber is as to how it works in the body. Fiber varies greatly from one source to the next and is classified as a carbohydrate, which is a classification of macronutrients that are essential in the diet. A unique fact about fiber is body does not break down this type of carbohydrate as it does with other forms by producing glucose, better known as blood sugar.
Fiber exists in two forms; soluble and insoluble. Simply put, soluble fiber can dissolve in water and insoluble fiber cannot. While there are two forms they are both equally beneficial and have their own roles in the body.
Soluble fiber has a fun reaction with water by attracting it to itself and becoming a gel-like texture in the intestines. This gel slows down the digestion process resulting in a feeling of fullness and satisfaction more quickly during a meal. This is an important element of soluble fiber because it has major positive implications for weight loss. Consuming soluble fiber will help prevent overeating, snacking, and strong sugar cravings.
Insoluble fiber does not turn into a gel in the intestines because it does not attract water, which is where it gets its name, insoluble. As a result of this fact, insoluble fiber will add bulk the stool which results in food passing more quickly through the digestive tract. If you’ve noticed, one form of fiber slows digestion and one form of fiber speeds up digestion. Why is this important? For people who have difficulty having a bowel movement the ability for insoluble fiber to provide regulation to the process brings relief.
Carbohydrates – The Good, The Bad, and The Yummy!
Carbohydrates get a bad reputation as a result of the highly processed and refined foods that are common on today’s grocery store shelves. These types of carb-rich foods contain a form of carbohydrates that are quickly processed by the body, turned to sugar, and stored as fat due to the excess amount needed.
The fact is, the body needs carbohydrates. 45-65 percent of our calories each day should come from this macronutrient. However, the quality of the carbohydrate is just as important as the quantity.
Why Quality Counts
There are two basic forms of carbohydrates; simple and complex. Today’s diet patterns, unfortunately, are loaded with simple carbohydrate foods. Now not all simple carbohydrate foods are bad, for example, fruits are high in simple carbohydrates, but they are also known as “nutrient-dense” foods which means while you are consuming simple carbohydrates that burn quickly you are also consuming lots of extra nutrients which are beneficial.
Simple carbohydrate foods are generally refined or processed and provide very few extra nutrients. These simple carbohydrates are what give the rest a bad reputation. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruit, milk, and other dairy products.
The body breaks them down and uses simple carbs for energy quickly. When you think of carbohydrates being bad these processed foods are generally what come to mind. A diet heavy with processed foods can lead to many health complications primarily due to inflammation.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that at least half of the grains consumed (which are primarily carbohydrates) come from whole grains. This is because whole grains are complex, meaning the body burns these more slowly and uses the other nutrients provided for many health benefits. This type of carbohydrate is found in foods like in whole grains, vegetables, peas, and beans.
It is considered to be more natural and nutrient-dense in that the food sources will often also provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The body takes longer to break these types of carbohydrates down making them less likely to be stored as fat.
An easy way to know if a food is made of simple or complex carbohydrates is to check the ingredients list. If the ingredients list has the word “enriched” then it has been through processing, even if it does also claim to be “enriched” whole wheat.
Carb Quantity Overload
If fruits, vegetables, and beans contain carbohydrates, then why are carbs bad? Carbohydrates are not bad but consuming the wrong types and too many can result in weight gain. This is why a diet low in carbohydrates, especially those that are processed and refined, and high in fiber is beneficial to weight loss.
A diet high in any nutrient can lead to weight gain and other health complications. However, when it comes to carbohydrates there is a point where the body has all that it needs to use for energy and it just starts storing the excess as fat to burn for energy at a later time. The downside is, we often do not allow the body to start burning these stored carbs because we are chronically overeating them. This is where weight gain and obesity often begins.
Fiber and Carbohydrates – The Miracle Combination
As has been discussed as length, fiber is important and carbohydrates can inhibit weight loss and other health goals. So the question is; how does a high fiber and low carbohydrate diet help with these goals?
The answer is more simple than one would assume. Fiber is essential in moderating the impact carbs have on the bloodstream. This means that fiber boosts the benefits of a low carbohydrate diet by lowering the impact that carbs can have on the body, in other words limiting them from being stored as fat and spiking glucose.
Fiber is also beneficial to a low carb diet with a goal of weight loss because it creates satiety which makes the dieter feel fuller more quickly and for longer. This benefit means they will be less likely to overeat or snack.
What Does This Diet Pattern Look Like?
There is another question hiding that should be asked; if fiber is a carbohydrate, how can a diet be low carb and high fiber? While most sources of fiber are classified as carbohydrates, fiber does not have the same effect of raising blood glucose as other high carbohydrates foods.
Because of this a “low-carb diet” does not include fiber as part of a carbohydrate count. Therefore, by looking at the ingredients label, or searching for the amount of fiber in a whole fruit or vegetable, you can simply subtract the amount of fiber in a food from the carbohydrate amount listed.
A high fiber and low carb diet will include the following foods.
- Flax and Chia seeds – these are almost entirely fiber.
- Wheat Bran
- Collard Greens
- Avocados – more than just healthy fats!
- Broccoli and Cauliflower – cooked or raw
- Eggplant – cooked or raw
- Romaine Lettuce
- Rice Bran
- Bell Peppers
- Snow Peas
- Nuts and Seeds
The Overall Benefits of Fiber
Fiber is a nutrient that should receive focus and be consumed in the recommended amounts regardless of diet type or health goals. This often overlooked nutrient has many benefits in the body and in short, it is imperative that it be consumed in the right amounts.
The following is a list of the benefits that fiber provides apart from any other dietary restrictions, such as low carb. However, it is important to note that these benefits are only magnified and enhanced when a high fiber and low carbohydrate diet are followed.
Ramps Up Weight Loss
A major reason people choose to consume high fiber and low carbohydrates is its impressive benefits for weight loss. Fiber slows the rate of digestion and adds bulk to stool. This creates a feeling of satiety, satisfaction after a meal, and makes it more likely that overeating and snacking will not occur. Because of this factor soluble fiber acts as a natural appetite suppressant.
Reduces Bad Cholesterol
A high fiber diet has benefits for cholesterol levels making it important for those at risk for heart disease to consume high amounts of fiber. Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad cholesterol” as it is termed, is a damaging form of cholesterol as it sticks to the arteries creating blockages and increasing a person’s risk for heart disease and stroke.
Soluble fiber works to reduce this type of cholesterol in the bloodstream by binding to the sticky substance and removing it from the body through the intestines
Feeds Good Bacteria
The bulk of the immune system’s function is located in the gut. Having a healthy gut has a major impact on a person’s overall health and the primary way to ensure gut health is through feeding the good bacteria located there.
These good bacteria located in the gut are important to overall health, but bad bacteria can overrun this area. When the good bacteria do not have the food and environment it needs to grow and thrive the bad bacteria can overrun the gut and create a host of health complications. Fiber act as a “prebiotic” which means that it feeds the good bacteria and prevents the gut from becoming overrun by bad bacteria. Inflammation and weight gain are two ways bad bacteria can cause havoc in the body
Chronic inflammation has reached epidemic proportions in today’s society. The Standard American Diet is to blame in large part due to the high amount of processed carbohydrate foods. Chronic inflammation leads to the development of illnesses and ailments in the body.
A diet high in fiber is associated with lower inflammatory markers in the body. When inflammation is lower the body is able to have appropriate immune responses and also prevent unwanted weight gain
Blood Sugar Control
Fiber plays an important role in glucose control. This is good news for anyone, but especially for the patient’s with a diabetes diagnosis. A high fiber diet can help the diabetic patient control their blood sugar in a natural way.
Women are recommended to consume around 25 grams of fiber per day while men should aim to get 38 grams each day. Increasing fiber intake too quickly can create gastrointestinal issues. Because of this, it is important to integrate fiber slowly to avoid this discomfort. Adding a little extra each day is a safe way to prevent this unwanted side effect.
If weight loss were the only benefit of high fiber and low carbohydrate diet it would still be a good enough reason to begin focusing on consuming this nutrient each day. Luckily this type of eating pattern goes far beyond weight loss and has health benefits that not only have an immediate impact but impact future health as well.
Trista Best is a Registered Dietitian and Content Writer. She has been writing in the areas of health, wellness, and nutrition for over three years and enjoys the opportunity it provides for creative outlet. Trista graduated with two Bachelor’s degrees, one from the University of Alabama in Dietetics, and a Master’s Degree in Public Health Nutrition. When she is not writing or working in the Paediatric Nutrition office she enjoys being active with her family, husband Brett and daughter Emma Grace.