In the spirit of Drynuary, I’d like to propose another health-oriented month of the year. Perhaps called Crunch-uary or Poop-tober, it would be 30 days in which Americans, for once, eat enough dietary fibre.
There are so many reasons why, from fast-food marketing to agriculture subsidies, but one contributing factor is the slow death of cooking, and the rise of the restaurant meal. Americans now spend more on food at restaurants than they do at grocery stores, but restaurant food tends to have even less fibre than the food we would otherwise eat at home.
One problem seems to be that restaurant meals aren't typically loaded with two of the best sources of fibre, unprocessed fruits and vegetables. A revealing study from 2007, in which researchers interviewed 41 restaurant executives, showed that restaurants think fruits and vegetables are too expensive to feature prominently on the menu, and “61 percent said profits drive menu selections”. They also opposed labelling certain menu items as healthier choices, saying that would be “the kiss of death”.
So people like to eat out, and when they do, they prefer mushy, fibre-free comfort foods. But that’s a pretty dangerous road to go down.
"We're beginning to realise that people who eat more dietary fibre are actually feeding their gut microbiome."
As my colleague Ed Yong has written, low-fibre diets make gut bacteria more homogenous, possibly for generations. Mice that are fed high-fibre diets have less-severe food allergies, potentially because gut bacteria break down fibre into short-chain fatty acids, which support the immune system. A more recent study in mice found that a low-fibre diet can spark inflammation in the intestines. We still need more studies to understand exactly how fibre and the microbiome interact in humans. But we do know that hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania and elsewhere, who don’t eat Western diets, eat about 100 grams of fibre a day and have much more diverse microbiomes than Westerners.
"We're beginning to realise that people who eat more dietary fibre are actually feeding their gut microbiome," Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford University, explained to NPR.
There are also already plenty of other studies detailing the many ways fibre boosts health.
Behold, an extremely confusing flow chart, from a 2005 study, showing how fibre leads to greater satiety, less insulin secretion, and more short-chain fatty acids, which all amounts to one thing: less body weight.
If you just want to be a little bit healthier without completely revamping your entire life - just try to eat more fibre.
People who are obese consistently report eating less fibre than people who aren’t. Even after controlling for other factors, fibre intake is inversely associated with body-mass index. Eating more fibre helps overweight people lose weight and body fat. It’s been shown to reduce breast-cancer risk by reducing estrogen levels in the blood and to promote healthy ageing.
“We found that those who had the highest intake of fibre or total fibre actually had an almost 80 percent greater likelihood of living a long and healthy life over a 10-year follow-up,” Bamini Gopinath, from Australia’s Westmead Institute, told PsychCentral. “That is, they were less likely to suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dementia, depression, and functional disability.”
So, if you are the kind of person who does Drynuary - in other words, you just want to be a little bit healthier without completely revamping your entire life - just try to eat more fibre.
The best part about this health advice is that it doesn’t involve eating something you don’t like. Fibre is in almost every fruit, vegetable, and whole grain. You could eat more apples and celery, sure, but there’s also fibre in things like corn tortillas, beans, grainy bread, and some types of breakfast cereal. A Chipotle burrito with brown rice and corn salsa will get you 22 grams of fibre, compared to just three grams in a Big Mac. (The burrito also has more than twice as many calories, though, so, you know, exercise caution as you would in all things.)
“We found that those who had the highest intake of fibre or total fibre actually had an almost 80 percent greater likelihood of living a long and healthy life over a 10-year follow-up."
But you don’t have to stop eating anything you do like: People lose about as much weight just by eating a lot of fibre as they do on complicated diets, even if they eat slightly more calories in the process.
So this coming Grain-tember, just order the peas as your side instead of the mac and cheese. Just cut a banana up over your Corn Flakes, which are surprisingly not fibrous in their own right. Just eat more fibre.
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