Figuring out Fiber
Everyone knows we should eat fiber and that it helps to “keep things moving” with regards to bowel movements, but that’s often where it stops. ‘Figuring out fiber’ can help with bowel health (making bowel movements not too soft or too hard, but just right), but it also helps with lowering cholesterol levels, controlling blood sugar levels, and lowering estrogen levels – reducing the risk of hormone-related diseases (including breast cancer).
Health Canada recommends that Canadian women consume 25 grams of fiber per day and men consume 38 grams of fiber per day, with kids aged 1 starting at 19 grams and increase this amount gradually during childhood to adult levels by age 14.
From there you need to decide what type of fiber – soluble or insoluble – to prioritize based on your individual goals. Both are important for a healthy gastrointestinal (GI) system (and many foods contain both) but each has added benefits!
Insoluble fiber is the fiber type that “makes stool”. It adds bulk to the stool and helps regulate softer bowel movements, as well as helps stool move through the GI system. Foods high in insoluble fiber can be constipating, but can also help bulk up softer or liquid bowel movements. These include the foods on the well-known childhood “BRAT” diet used to re-introduce solid foods after GI viruses; bananas, rice, applesauce and toast (bread).
Soluble fiber is the fiber type that “makes you go” (have a bowel movement). It attracts water during the digestive process which helps with constipation, but it also slows down digestion, which helps with diarrhea. Examples of foods high in soluble fiber include: grapefruit, plums, chia seeds, flax, psyllium fiber, strawberries and barley. This type of fiber helps remove estrogen and cholesterol from the body.
This is a good time to note that fiber doesn’t work well if it’s not paired with enough fluid, in fact it can make digestive issues worse. So as you increase your fiber amount, make sure you’re drinking at approximately ½ your body weight in ounces. So, for example, if you weighed 100 lbs., then you’d be aiming for 50 oz of fluids per day.
Now you’re probably thinking, that’s a lot of information, how can I make this easier on myself? One way is to eat more foods high in both types of fiber, including barley, beans (all types!), peas, prunes, nuts, berries and seeds. Another way is to book in to see a pelvic health physiotherapist, who can help you look at your bowel issues holistically, especially if you’re dealing with hemorrhoids, persistent constipation, fecal incontinence, feelings of incomplete emptying with bowel movements and needing to strain with bowel movements. Fiber is often a big piece of the puzzle, but toileting routines, pressure management and pelvic floor muscle health can also play a big role.