Even though it is popularly known that “fiber is good for you,” it is regardless estimated that less than 5% of the population of the United States actually consumes enough fiber for optimal health. Moreover, people aren’t just barely missing the mark; indeed, the same estimates suggest that Americans ingest as much 70% less fiber than the recommended daily intake. That’s a significant shortfall, and research points to a wide variety of negative health outcomes that have been linked to low fiber diets. The most obvious way to address this is to simply make food and beverage choices that include more fiber, but that can be challenging to do with the typical American diet. Fiber supplements have become a popular and lucrative part of the nutrition industry in recent years, but the question remains: are fiber supplements actually good for you?
Why Do We Need Fiber?
Before arriving at an answer about fiber supplements, it’s helpful to understand the purpose of fiber generally. Dietary fiber is defined as the parts of food that can’t be digested by our digestive system. In other words, fiber is the part of food that isn’t carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals, or vitamins; it’s what’s left over, and it is also sometimes referred to as roughage or bulk. But although fiber can’t be digested, it nevertheless serves several important functions. Below are the two types of fiber:
Soluble Fiber: This type of fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel that actually slows digestion and extends the feeling of “fullness.” Soluble fiber also:
- Slows the absorption of glucose in a way that is beneficial for blood sugar levels and the body’s sensitivity to insulin
- Positively disrupts the absorption of cholesterol, which decreases LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) in the bloodstream
- Can help manage type 2 diabetes
- Aids in removing water from stool so that they are easier to pass
- Can be found in nuts, legumes, seeds, oats, apples, and carrots
Insoluble Fiber: This type, as the name implies, does not dissolve in water but instead remains more or less intact even after moving through the small intestine. Insoluble fiber:
- Adds bulk to stool to make it solid and able to be passed with more regularity
- Also draws water into the stool so that is able to pass more easily
- Can be found in whole grains, popcorn, nuts, seeds, broccoli, leafy green vegetables, and the skins of many fruits and vegetables
Both soluble and insoluble fiber obviously serve different purposes, but they’re also both beneficial for good digestive health as well as helping maintain the regularity of bowel movements. Other than the impact of soluble fiber on LDL cholesterol, there isn’t necessarily a reason to be concerned with the balance of soluble and insoluble fiber in your dietary choices. Regardless of the type you consume, the recommended daily intake of fiber from food is 25 to 30 grams. As noted above, though, this number is closer to 15 grams of fiber a day for most Americans.
What Are Fiber Supplements?
The reason Americans don’t have enough fiber in their diet is somewhat of an open question, but one theory is that it is partially a result of the “anti-carb” sentiment that has been around for decades. In response to the Atkins diet and some other fad diets, a lot of attention was focused on how the sugar in carbohydrates is bad for you, but this also inadvertently may have caused people to avoid the other kinds of carbohydrates that are actually rich in fiber (like whole grains, for instance). However it came into existence as a problem, there have now emerged a whole subset of nutritional products that are designed to supplement one’s daily fiber intake.
The basic premise of taking fiber supplements is that you can take the supplement to shore up your daily needs without having to alter your diet at all. Most fiber supplements are made of psyllium husk and come in the form of capsules, powders, gummies, caplets, or chewable tablets, and they are meant to be taken on a regular basis. Besides adding to one’s normal daily intake of fiber, people also use fiber supplements with the intention of improving the quality and regularity of bowel movements; for example, these supplements are sometimes recommended for the elderly to prevent constipation or bloating at times when their appetites are too low to maintain regular eating habits.
As fiber supplements have grown in popularity over the years, the number and variety of options has also increased. Some considerations should be made for people with prior medical conditions; for example, diabetics should look for sugar-free options and people who need to watch their sodium consumption should avoid psyllium. Below are some of the more common supplements available:
- Metamucil (psyllium)
- Citrucel (methylcellulose)
- FiberCon (polycarbophil)
- UniFiber (cellulose)
- Benefiber (prebiotic)
- Wheat dextrin
- Organic acacia
Are Fiber Supplements Actually Beneficial?
Dietetic researchers have long known that sufficient amounts of dietary fiber, especially as it impacts the small intestine, can lower cholesterol and improve glycemic control. In the large intestine, fiber can additionally act as a laxative because of its effect on water on stool. For all these reasons, fiber is critically important to our digestive health, heart health, and our overall health. Fiber is even thought by some to aid in weight loss or weight management. Yet for all these benefits, it still isn’t entirely clear if fiber supplements can really effectively stand in for the real thing.
Several studies on the effects of insoluble and soluble fiber supplements have shown that they do indeed seem to have a positive impact on bowel function; when these isolated psyllium fibers are taken in supplement form, they can provide a similar function as dietary fiber found in food in terms of slowing down digestion and making stools easier to pass. These studies have also indicated that there aren’t any harmful effects of long-term use of supplements. What is also clear so far, however, is that fiber supplements don’t appear to provide any of the other overall health benefits that have been known to accompany adequate amounts of fiber from the foods we eat.
So, the conclusion: Yes, fiber supplements can be good for you in a limited capacity, but they should definitely not be a permanent replacement for actual food-based fiber. The best health advice from any doctor would be to try to increase the amount of fiber in your diet by including foods that naturally contain fiber. Supplements, then, can be used occasionally to either bolster a low-fiber week or to remedy the kind of constipation or bowel irregularity that can occur from time to time for most people.
Increasing one’s daily fiber intake is one of the easiest ways to simultaneously improve your overall health and your digestive health. Sometimes, though, occasional constipation, diarrhea, or cramping strikes, and you need a remedy. If you’ve been having bowel problems consistently, it might be time to make an appointment with us at Cary Gastroenterology Associates. Our board-certified physicians are available to help make sure you get the health care you need.