March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. Among cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. It is now believed that 47% of colorectal cancer cases could be prevented by eating healthy, being active and being a healthy weight. One of the biggest components of eating healthy is eating fiber-rich foods, as these are strongly associated with reduced colon cancer risk.
What are the facts about fiber? Fiber is a type of carbohydrate. There are two types, soluble fiber and insoluble fiber, and both have different effects in the body.
Soluble fiber acts like a sponge inside the body. It absorbs water you drink, and swells up to form a gel- like substance. This substance makes you feel fuller due to its size, so you eat less over time, aiding weight loss. This is also important from a cancer prevention point of view, as being overweight or obese increases the risk of colorectal cancer. In order for soluble fiber to work its magic, you must be consuming enough liquids to allow it to swell and have its effects.
Insoluble fiber is the fiber that most people think of, the ‘roughage’. It works like a broom inside the body. It passes through untouched, sweeping the colon clean and helping to keep the bowel opening regularly.
Many foods contain a mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber, however some foods contain very high levels of one particular type. Soluble fiber is found in apples, carrots, oats, and legumes such as peas, beans and lentils). Insoluble fiber is found in nuts, seeds, wholegrain products and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.
The American dietary guidelines recommend consuming between 22-32g of fiber per day depending on the age and sex of the individual. The current average intake for an American adult is around 16g per day.
The American Institute of Cancer Research recommend 30g of fiber per day to enjoy the full health benefits. To achieve this, you would need to be eating at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day (for information on knowing what counts as a portion click here). You would also need to eat some wholegrains, such as oats or whole-wheat bread or pasta.
Fiber isn’t just important for cancer prevention. Soluble fiber binds to bile acids in the intestine and causes them to be lost when you go to the toilet. As bile acids are full of cholesterol, preventing them from being reabsorbed means that blood cholesterol levels may fall, helpful for heart health.
If your diet consists mostly of highly processed refined foods, it’s healthy to make the change, but it’s not a good idea to suddenly start eating 30g of fiber per day. Less is sometimes more. The body needs time to adjust to higher fiber levels, and doing too much too fast can lead to bloating, gas and constipation, effects that might make you think eating more fiber won’t agree with you. Easy ways to start to increase your fiber include switching to wholegrain cereals, breads and pastas, or starting to leave the skin on fruits and vegetables like apples and potatoes, as this is where the majority of the fiber is contained. Allow your body to get used to these changes before increasing fiber further. As mentioned earlier, make sure you are also drinking plenty of liquids at this time to allow the fiber to do its job.
Check out our high fiber recipes for some inspiration on ways to get that fabulous fiber into your diet.
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