When your digestive system is healthy, it effectively processes the nutrients from the foods you eat and produces consistent bowel movements that are soft, bulky and easy to pass. If your digestive system becomes sluggish, first see your doctor to rule out more serious causes such as inflammatory bowel disease. When you need to kick-start a sluggish digestive system, the prevailing advice is to increase your fiber intake. Fiber plays a crucial role in digestive health.
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Dietary Fiber 101
Fiber is the indigestible part of plants known as roughage. Even though this plant material passes through your body undigested, it plays a critical role in digestive health. You get two types of fiber from your diet. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and turns into a gel during digestion. Some types of soluble fiber can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol. The other type, called insoluble fiber, doesn't dissolve in water. Most fiber-containing foods have a mixture of both types.
Fiber and Digestive Health
Both types of fiber play a role in keeping your digestive system healthy. The gel that soluble fiber forms helps to slow digestion, which keeps you feeling full longer. The roughage that insoluble fiber creates acts as a broom, sweeping food along and keeping it moving quickly through your digestive tract, which promotes regularity and prevents constipation. It also adds bulk to stool, making it softer and easier to pass. In addition, fiber helps prevent diverticular disease, which occurs when small pockets develop on the lining of the colon and become inflamed.
Getting More Fiber in Your Diet
Focus on insoluble fiber-rich foods if your digestive system is sluggish. Whole grains like bran and whole wheat as well as beans and legumes are particularly rich in insoluble fiber. Good vegetable sources of insoluble fiber are asparagus, fresh beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, kale, frozen okra, sweet potatoes, peas, spinach and turnips. Some fruits are also good insoluble fiber sources, including apples with skin, apricots, blueberries, figs, mangoes, oranges, peaches, pears, kiwifruit, plums, raspberries and strawberries.
Recommended Intake and Caution
Avoid increasing your fiber intake all at once. This can cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as gas and bloating. Instead, gradually raise your intake over the course of a few weeks, and be sure to drink plenty of water. Adults should get 25 to 38 grams of fiber daily, according to the Institute of Medicine. Older adults need slightly less. Avoid changing your diet without first having your doctor rule out other possible causes. Increasing fiber in the presence of digestive disease can make symptoms worse.