fiber, Denis Burkett, colon cancer, mucilage, pectin, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, bran

Fiber: The Ultimate Non-Nutrient

Fiber: The Ultimate Non-Nutrient

 © 2006 Wellness Clubs of
“May I ask you a personal question?” the young man asked hesitantly.

“Certainly,” I replied, not knowing where he was heading but open to any number of possibilities.

“How often should a person have a bowel movement?” he asked sheepishly, adding, “My friend and I disagree about it. He says it’s normal to have one every day, but that doesn’t seem right to me.”

“It’s not,” I replied. “The body is designed to empty waste after each meal. Raw material in; waste material out. It’s really a very natural cycle.”

“That can’t be right!” he argued. “I only go once or twice a week. You’re just kidding, right?”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t kidding. The young man was not eliminating waste matter in a timely manner. As a consequence he was very likely to develop serious health challenges in the future.

His experience is not uncommon. Many people in the United States consider having a bowel movement once every two to three days or even once a week entirely normal. The subject is not one that is openly discussed, and if they do not have the courage to ask someone who understands how the body is designed to function they accept their personal experience as the norm.

Prompt elimination of waste products from the body is primarily dependent upon three factors: Adequate water consumption, adequate mineral supplies, and an adequate intake of dietary fiber.

Without adequate water intake stools become dry, hard, and move though the intestinal tract more slowly. A good formula to determine how much water you should be drinking is to divide your body weight (in pounds) by two. The result represents the number of ounces of pure water you should be drinking daily.

If adequate supplies of minerals are not present the muscles lining the walls of the intestines will not contract and relax smoothly. The alternating contraction and relaxation of smooth muscles in a wave-like pattern, called peristalsis, is the mechanism that moves intestinal contents forward. The muscles must be supplied with minerals, especially magnesium, for peristalsis to operate efficiently. Supplementation with 400 to 1000 mg. of magnesium in concert with a similar amount of calcium and a comprehensive trace mineral formulation is recommended.

Fiber, which is defined as the indigestible components of plant cell walls, is the key component in assuring timely elimination of wastes from the digestive tract. A sizable number of disease processes are prevented or improved by the ingestion of adequate amounts of fiber. Obesity, gout, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, constipation, appendicitis, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, tooth decay, and skin conditions are only some of the illnesses that occur with greater frequency when diets low in fiber are consumed.

Much of what is now known about the beneficial effects of fiber in the diet is a result of the pioneering work of Dr. Denis Burkitt, a British physician who spent most of his career in Africa. Dr. Burkitt observed that diseases such as osteoarthritis, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are uncommon in tribal populations eating a traditional diet rich in plant fiber. These diseases become commonplace only when the diet becomes fully westernized.

I once had the privilege of having dinner with Dr. Burkitt. He was a very congenial, unassuming man. As he looked over the menu he shook his head sadly and quietly stated, “I have traveled around the world, and only in the west must I order a meal based upon the meat course.” He settled upon the salad bar, which was much to his liking.

Two distinct types of dietary fiber are known, each of which provides specific benefits. Insoluble fiber is the type of fiber found in wheat bran. It is rich in cellulose, a substance that provides bulk to the stool helping to prevent constipation. Although cellulose cannot be digested by humans, bacteria in the intestinal tract do partially digest it, producing fatty acids that nourish intestinal cells in the process.

Soluble fiber, so called because it dissolves in water, is made up of four components: hemicelluose, mucilage, gum, and pectin. Oat bran is rich in hemicellulose, which, in addition to providing the benefits of cellulose can also lower cholesterol levels.

Mucilages are found in the inner layer of grains, legumes (beans and peas), nuts and seeds. Guar gum, found in beans, is commonly used as a thickener in commercial products such as salad dressing, lotion and toothpaste. Guar gum, when taken as a supplement before meals, using 20 grams daily, has been demonstrated to bring about an average weight loss of over 1 pound per week while lowering blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Psyllium husk, a popular fiber supplement, is also a mucilage.

Mucilages are the most potent cholesterol lowering fibers and have been used successfully in weight loss programs, since they help to maintain normal sugar and insulin levels in the bloodstream. They are capable of absorbing many times their weight in water and work well as stool modulators, providing bulk to prevent constipation while absorbing water to prevent diarrhea.

Pectins are commonly found in the outer skin and rind of fruits and vegetables such as oranges, apples, onions, and tomatoes. Pectins are known to significantly lower cancer risk. Some researchers are now suggesting that the benefits of tomato sauces in lowering the incidence of prostate cancer are due not to the red pigment as originally thought, but to the pectin they provide.

Lignan precurors are fiber compounds that act as natural antibiotics and are being shown beneficial in cancer management. Flaxseeds are the richest source of these substances, but they are also found in other seeds, grains, and legumes.

Fortunately it is relatively easy to obtain these fibers provided you are willing to incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables into your daily diet. Wheat and oat brans, legumes, crucifers (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), fruits and vegetables with skin, nuts and berries are the primary dietary sources of fiber.

Many people believe that they are allergic to fiber-rich foods because they experience gassiness, cramping, and bloating when they eat them. This is not an allergy, however, but a sign that the digestive system is unaccustomed to adequate amounts of fiber and is therefore intolerant of it. These symptoms can generally be avoided or minimized by increasing the dietary fiber gradually.

The same is true if using fiber supplements. It is best to begin with 1 to 2 grams before meals and at bedtime and gradually increase to 5 grams per serving. Listen to what your body tells you. You want to include enough fiber in your diet or supplement enough fiber to be having two or three bowel movements each day without experiencing abdominal discomfort, gassiness or bloating. Don’t try to reach the goal quickly. Add a little fiber each day, cutting back if you become uncomfortable. It may take several weeks to establish a habit of eating or supplementing optimum amounts of fiber, but the benefits are well worth the effort.

You will experience an increase in energy as the body begins to efficiently eliminate toxins from the bowel. In addition, you should experience improved digestion and see more optimal cholesterol ratios. You may lose weight without consciously dieting, and you will lower the numbers of harmful bacteria and increase the numbers of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract. These acid-loving bacteria will promote the production of chemicals that provide energy to the body and significantly decrease the likelihood of developing colon cancer.

The importance of fiber in maintaining health is now so well established it is hard to remember that Burkitt’s book, Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention, was first published in 1981. His arguments were so convincing that many people realized that, when choosing a diet, the healthiest way may indeed be to go back to the future – back to the dietary habits of “uncivilized” people to secure a future of health and vitality.

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