Let's take a look at some of these questions...
image from betterbreadmaker.com
The Role of Fiber in the Body.
Fiber is an important part of a balanced diet. Fiber in the body serves as a complement to bile. It binds it and removes it from being reabsorbed and transferred back to the liver. So why is this elimination process important? It is important because bile is what allows hydrophobic components of our food to be absorbed by the body. Among these hydrophobic components are fats and fat soluble vitamins and toxins. Unfortunately, things like pesticides, artificial hormones, and certain polymers are fat soluble, not to mention many of the fats we cook with such as vegetable oils contain chemical contaminants from processing. If this contaminated bile is not bound with fiber and eliminated in the feces, then it will be reabsorbed by the body and eventually compound as more and more toxins are not eliminated with fiber.
So in short, yes! Fiber is very important in our diet.
This is why many nutritionists say that grains are a part of a healthy balanced diet. However, the problem arises when many doctors prescribe increased fiber for those that have constipation. For diarrhea, this is a good strategy, but for constipation, fiber does not help reverse the condition. Babies do not consume much fiber because things like bread, corn, and beans are too hard to digest for their new stomachs. However, they still have regular bowel movements! Fiber increases the bulk of stools, but does not help it move out of the body more regularly. To the best of my knowledge, constipation is not due to lack of fiber.
The Problem with Most Fiber.
The issue with fiber is that most people are sensitive to the foods in which fiber is concentrated. Many are sensitive to gluten (probably from heavy pesticide contamination), corn, and beans. I don't necessarily mean that most people are allergic to these foods, but sensitive. For example, these foods don't cause allergic reactions like hives or closing of the throat, but general inflammation in the body might occur which results in side effects from eating these foods such as: headaches, mood changes, brain fog, aggravation of skin conditions (such as acne and eczema), and bowel irregularity. Sound familiar? The center for food allergies has a great deal of information linking medical symptoms to food sensitivities: http://www.centerforfoodallergies.com/index.htm
This causes many opposing views on fiber consumption.
Many doctors emphasize that extra fiber helps those with irregular bowel movements even in cases of constipation. Sources for this information usually come from older textbooks (e.g.: Dietary Reference Intakes)
On the other hand, we see the alternative health community and some papers in the scientific community pushing back with the idea that fiber is terrible for your bowels and should be avoided. e.g.: Gutsense.org, and Scientific literature
And sometimes, it is not even the fiber that is causing the problem, but other types of food allergies! For a list of common food allergies (some, you will be surprised by) see the PaleoMom website. Eliminating foods you are sensitive to can help resolve lots of health issues in addition to bowel irregularity.
So What Fiber is Safe to Eat?
The short answer is that any fiber that doesn't cause inflammation (due to sensitivity) is a good fiber to consume. Some foods that are high in fiber and less inflammatory that you can try, include: brown rice, teff, coconut flesh, Einkorn flour, glucomannan, and most seeds. However, you need to make sure that you are not allergic to these sources. If you are allergic, this will cause inflammation in the intestines to result in constipation, diarrhea, or other non-bowel related symptoms. However, if you have been consuming a food you are sensitive to for a long time, your gut may be damaged and not tolerate any of these. Since fiber is essentially roughage in the intestines, the best way to recover from this damage is to avoid (I really mean lower here, do keep eating potato skins, veggies, and leafy greens) fiber for a couple of weeks to let the intestinal lining heal before reintroducing such rough food.
This is my fiber of choice, Teff. About 3-5 Tbsp a day is all of the fiber I need to normalize my stools.
How Much Fiber Should We Consume?
This is a good question and, I believe, a highly individual one. The right amount of fiber is one that keeps us healthy. We need fiber to remove toxins from our bodies, but we also shouldn't be consuming so much, or the wrong kind so that it induces inflammation. My bowel tolerance is somewhere around 1/4-1/2 cup of whole wheat products a day ( I think this is a bit low for most people) so find what suits you. A good way to judge this is based on your stools.
So what do healthy stools look like?
Healthy stools are smooth without cracks or lumps. They have well formed edges and are not fluffy or loose. On the bristol stool scale, healthy stool is considered to be a type 4. Additionally, on a daily basis a person should pass about TWO FEET of stool. This does not mean 2 feet in volume, but 2 feet in length. Last, healthy bowel movements should occur 2-3 times a day. This usually occurs after ingesting meals. If your GI tract is healthy you should be pooping EVERYDAY. If this doesn't describe your bowel movements, you probably have some inflammation down there.
image from: https://twitter.com/bschart
Other Things That Affect Your Stool Quality.
Besides fiber, there are other things that can affect your stool quality. These are important to utilize when recovering GI health.
1). Healthy and balanced bacterial colonies.
This is a big one. Even if you have the perfect diet, bacterial imbalance will still cause you to have bowel irregularity. The best way to do this is by introducing many types of fermented food into your diet. Some commercial products you can try are: kombucha, water kefir, cultured yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh. Double check that the products you are buying are unpasteurized. You need those live bacteria to get in your stomach and wriggle around to digest your food for you. Home fermented products are great too! This is a cheap way to get more bacteria in your body. It can be a bit tricky to learn how to do, but once you get started, fermenting foods is so worth it and is very safe.
You might be wondering why I didn't mention probiotic pills here... I believe that the pill forms of probiotics are not nearly as effective as liquid cultures. It might be a difference in the amount of bacteria in the liquids versus the pills, but I don't actually know. However, I personally experienced no effects from many types and brands of probiotic pills, whereas with cultured foods, I witnessed an immediate (within 5 minutes!) difference. For some reason my body was not properly digesting pills. I believe this is not an uncommon occurrence as many people with bowel issues have low stomach acid. To each their own source of probiotics, but fermented foods are immensely cheaper and seem to work better in my opinion. If you don't notice a change in your health from taking a probiotic, try another source, because you should definitely feel a difference!
To keep your stomach health and happy, it is good to consume many types of probiotic foods. From what I understand, it is not so much important the amount of bacteria that inhabit your stomach, but the types and the variety of organisms present. Consuming different types of fermented foods at different stages of growth will also contribute to the introduction of different types of bacteria.
2). Healthy Fats
Healthy fats play a large role in intestinal health. Don't take it from me but listen to this guy instead. Healthy fats can be hard to find. Unadulterated oils include: coconut oil, some brands of olive oil (please do your research well), and healthy animal fats. The method through which standard vegetable oils and even seed oils (sold as health supplements) are pressed and stored oxidizes them so that they are no longer healing fats. For healthy oils, check out the Panaseeda oils sold by activation products for properly pressed and stored oil supplements. There is also a podcast covering the story behind the oils here.
3). Mineral Balance
Lastly, certain imbalances of minerals can lead to bowel problems. Most notably is Magnesium. Other macrominerals in which people are typically low include: calcium, zinc, and potassium. Many people have deficiencies in these because our soils have been depleted of nutrients and/or their ratio of mineral intake is skewed. Every mineral in the body has other antagonistic minerals that balance its availability to the body. Magnesium's antagonist is calcium, zinc's antagonist is copper, and potassium's antagonist is sodium.
Good sources of magnesium include: leafy greens or epsom salts.
Good sources of calcium include: dairy, leafy greens, sardines, and bone broth
Good sources of zinc include: meats and bone broth (I don't consider seeds high in zinc as they are also high in copper, it is the ratio of the two to each other that are important)
Good sources of potassium include: fruits and most other foods honestly, we just consume way too much salt today. By reducing salt intake we can increase our potassium stores.
This list is by no means extensive of the mineral rich foods, but is just a few suggestions to get started.
For a nice balance of minerals, I usually just recommend drinking about a cup of unsalted bone broth a day. Bone broth is super rich in all types of minerals.
For more information on mineral balance Dr. Wilson has a nice website with many in depth descriptions.
Learning What Works for You.
The real message I am trying to pass on here, I guess, is to eat in a way that works for you. Everyone responds differently to different types of foods. Learn whether or not certain foods or chemicals cause you headaches, mood swings, bowel dysfunctions, or etc. Foods can make you feel better or worse and I think we all can sense this if we pay attention. Diet is something you should decide for yourself instead of following the advice of people who don't know or inquire about how your body is responding. Healing diets such as GAPS, SCD, Paleo, and etc. should be viewed as templates.
Food is medicine and works in different ways for everyone! The forms of fiber that work best for your body are highly individualized (especially for sensitive individuals). I hope I have been able to provide some useful information to help guide you on your healing journey.
As always, let me know if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions! My aim here is to provide information and knowledge so that others might be able to better fit pieces together in their personal health puzzle.