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You’re probably already familiar with one of the benefits of fiber, but this carbohydrate has a lot more to offer than just regularity. Fibrous foods have been linked with healthy weight maintenance, lowered cholesterol, and decreased risk of diabetes and colon cancer. In addition to these benefits, fiber seems to play a crucial role in balancing the gut microbiome.
A recent study in Nature examined the role of dietary fiber in rats, specifically in their gut microbiomes. The rats were given a diet with reduced dietary fiber, which decreased diversity of the gut microbiome. After adding fiber back into the diet, not all of the microbiota could be replenished. Moreover, the diminished microbiota was passed down to the next generation. This study suggests fiber has an important role to play in the human gut microbiome as well.
How can one little nutrient do so much? The trick is in the digestive tract. Our bodies can’t digest fiber, so it travels through our digestive system intact and helps keep everything in check. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, which travel through your body in different ways and offer their own unique health benefits.
SOLUBLE FIBER Soluble fiber absorbs water, creating a gel-like substance that creeps through the digestive system. This slows down digestion and gives your body more time to process what’s moving through it.
A study in Nutrients found that soluble fibers were more effective in lowering LDL and total cholesterol. When these fibers travel slowly through the digestive tract, they trap bile, preventing it from being reabsorbed, and thereby contributing to lower total cholesterol levels. They also regulate blood sugar levels by catching glucose and allowing the body to absorb it over time. This can help prevent dangerous spikes in blood sugar, and thus can be a useful tool for diabetics.
The ability of soluble fibers to collect free water inside the large intestine helps prevent diarrhea. Futhermore, it is fermented by the bacteria in the large intestine, resulting in short-chain fatty acids that are absorbed and used for energy.
INSOLUBLE FIBER While soluble fiber slows things down, insoluble fiber does quite the opposite. It remains nearly complete all the way through the digestive tract. Because it travels whole, it adds heft to stool and acts as a catalyst to speed digestion.
Insoluble fiber’s quick and bulky journey through the body balances pH levels in the intestines, which may prevent microbes from creating cancerous cells that cause colon cancer and breast cancer. The mostly intact fiber promotes movement in the digestive tract, alleviating constipation and promoting regularity.