Transforming Gut Health with Fiber

It’s such an exciting time to be alive, especially within the context of the health field. The more I learn, the more I realize how much there is yet to learn, and the more excited I am for the future and all it holds. We are standing at a great precipice of transformational knowledge – I liken it to the Renaissance during the middle ages and what it did for the arts, science, philosophy, technology, and everything ever since. That era completely changed the world, and likewise the era we are stepping into now will do the same. When we emerge on the other side, the world as we know it will be history. It will be a wondrous new world, with a much more complex understanding of ourselves and how we live in it.

We are getting glimpses of that world forming now – starting in the microscope.

Something so fascinating to me is the human microbiome – the trillions of microorganisms that live on and in the human body. It’s analogous to Earth itself: just as humans, animals, and plants populate the planet, so too do bacteria and yeasts populate the human body. Our instructor refers to the human body as its own microplanet. I like that.

And interestingly, just as human populations may be altered and controlled by the food they eat, so too can the microbiotic populations in the body be changed by eating different foods – resulting in marked changes in the body as well. And those changes may ripple out from the person to the community to the planet to the universe and then to … who knows?

The point is, one person can indeed change the world, and it starts by changing the world that is your own body.

It seems that there really are two different types of people in the world: those who have a gut microbiome that is predominantly Prevotella bacteria, and others who are predominantly Bacteriodes. Those with Prevotella (which to me is pretty-sounding, like a name for an Italian princess) are plant eaters, with the Prevotella bacteria specialized in breaking down and utilizing plant material. Those with Bacteriodes (which to me sounds like a formidable Greek king in a war story) are meat and dairy eaters, with Bacteriodes specialized in breaking down meat and dairy.

In studies, Bacteriodes are associated with an increased risk of colon cancer – the second most common cancer in Americans.

But in looking at Prevotella studies, there also seems to be some controversy. So let’s put isolated studies aside for a moment and look at the big picture.

In the image above, the distinction is made between Western and Non-Western Diets, with populations of Prevotella increasing as the diet progresses from omnivore to plant-based. In other words, Non-Western diets, which are full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, have fostered Prevotella-based gut populations within the people who eat them.

Now, while non-Western populations may have their own problems, what do they generally not have?

Cancer. Obesity. Diabetes. Heart disease. Digestive diseases like IBS. Acne. Addiction. Mental illness.

So maybe they are onto something there.

But rather than make it about Western vs. Non-Western, or Meat Eater vs. Vegan (because not only is it possible, but rather common, for a vegan to be unhealthy) let’s focus on what we can do right now, no matter where we are in the spectrum:

Eat fiber.

The Standard American Diet is low in fiber – the average American eating meats and sweets is getting about 11-15 grams of fiber per day. The USDA recommends 25-35 grams, and historically, humans were eating 70 to a whopping 200 grams of fiber per day.

So modern Americans are getting significantly less fiber than needed.

Why do we need fiber?

Fiber is what keeps things moving along through the digestive tract to eventually move out of the body. A high-fiber diet is what makes for a quick, pleasant (almost orgasmic, even) bathroom experience. It doesn’t take longer than about ten seconds, it leaves little or no residue on your tissue, and it won’t stank up the bathroom. Oh, and it feels amazing, a feeling that can continue on well into the day, even if few people want to admit it – that may also be because few people actually experience it.

Most Americans are constipated. Being deficient in fiber (since animal products and junk food contain no fiber), the foods sit and rot in the gut, eventually leading to painful, forced bowel movements, hemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome, diverticular disease, and polyps which eventually turn into cancer (if diet is not corrected).

Nowhere is there a stronger argument for changing the diet than with digestive diseases. There is no pill that is going to solve this, which is why the medical industry (which deals only in drugs, not in nutrition) is woefully unequipped to handle these issues that millions of Americans are bringing to them. And unfortunately, there is little or no education among the public about what to do either: mass programming is in the form of profit-driven junk food advertising, which is teaching Americans to do the exact opposite of what they should do, and only fostering the furthering of their disease.

This is why I love the course I’m in now. Because the solution is actually very simple, once you know what to do.

How to Eat Fiber-Based

Like all significant changes, switching to a fiber-based diet must be done slowly and incrementally over time. Going from fiber-deficient to too much fiber can backfire and result in abandoning the operation altogether. So just remember: slow and steady wins the race. We are balancing the extremes.

The general guideline is to increase your fiber intake by 5 grams per week – that’s about one meal per week. Foods with fiber in them are listed below, in order of amount:

  1. Beans
  2. Whole Grains
  3. Fruits and Vegetables

If you are eating a Standard American Diet (meats and sweets), start at the bottom of this list and work your way up – fruits and vegetables, if you haven’t been eating them every day already. Bring an apple to work instead of visiting the vending machine, and add steamed vegetables as a side dish at dinner. If you eat white bread or pasta, switch to their whole-grain counterparts – just check the ingredients label, as front packaging that says “whole-grain” can still be only partially whole-grain (as bizarre as that sounds), as it’s mixed with refined white flour. There is no fiber in white flour – that’s what the refining process does, it removes the fiber – so you want 100% whole grain only if you’re going for fiber.

Next, try replacing an entire meal with a fiber-based alternative. The easiest place to do this is breakfast – instead of eggs and bacon, try oatmeal (a whole grain) with blueberries and bananas instead. Or, if you prefer a more savory flavor profile, try water-sauteeing onions, mushrooms and spinach to top your oatmeal – add Harissa sauce if you like it spicy.

Beans should be the last food added to your diet, and done slowly to cultivate the Prevotella bacteria in your gut that will break them down properly. (Without having those bacteria, eating beans can result in the indigestion they have been famous for.) Start with just a tablespoon per day, and increase the amount by a tablespoon each week.

What about a fiber supplement? Since fiber is so abundant in the right kinds of foods (real foods), a supplement might seem redundant, but it does have the benefit of allowing for a slow, controlled adaption to fiber. Unless you are calculating daily values of fiber in your foods, you may not know exactly how much fiber you’re getting, but with a fiber supplement, you can be sure. So a fiber supplement such as Acacia powder may be something to consider if that is the case for you.

As you begin to add more fiber to your diet and go about your day, you will start to notice something: you feel full after meals. For a long time. Yep, that’s one of fiber’s many amazing mechanisms: as it binds with water, it creates bulk, which gives you that sensation of fullness in your stomach. Oats, beans and potatoes are some of the most filling (and least expensive) foods available, so if you make them the base of your daily meals you can stretch your budget a long way, and feel full without stretching your waistline – shattering the myth that “it’s expensive to eat healthy” too.

You may also notice that after eating fiber, your blood sugar is more stable – or if you’re not tracking it, you may just notice that your mood and energy levels are more stable. You may find you’re not having that 2pm crash as usual (about the only thing that’s regular on a meats and sweets diet).

You may even notice a seemingly unrelated benefit: lower cholesterol. That’s right – in one study, participants who were fed 150 grams of fiber per day lowered their cholesterol as much as statin drugs.

Of course, a reduced intake of animal foods alone can lower cholesterol – but it seems that fiber also plays a role in elimination of lipids and hormones in the body.

This is encouraging news, showing again that not only does the body work holistically (with nutrition and colon health affecting cardiovascular health – these systems are seen and treated as separate by the medical industry), there is also hope for getting off drugs, which Americans desperately need to do.

At this time, there really is no drug that can treat digestive disorders – probiotic pills are probably the closest, but their efficacy is highly debatable. However, there are plenty of drugs that can harm the digestive system:

• Antibiotics (destroys gut microbiome, severely affecting digestion and the entire body as a result – getting 2-3 rounds per year as a child is a significant predictor for food allergies and gut issues later in life)
• Aspirin/Ibuprofen/NSAIDs (cause GI bleeding)
• Antacids such as Prilosec and Nexium (inhibit calcium absorption)
• Alcohol
• Steroids
• Opiates and marijuana (cause constipation)

Could any (or many) of these drugs could be tapered off or eliminated with a fiber-based diet?

What other ills could fiber help us avoid?

Colon Cancer, IBS, Diverticulitis

This is a big deal. Colon cancer is the second most prevalent cancer in America. It’s estimated that half of Americans (who eat the Standard American Diet) have colon polyps, which are pre-cancerous. It takes about 10-15 years for a polyp to form (from undigested animal protein irritating the colon wall), and another 10-15 years for the polyp to become cancerous. While this does give somewhat of a grace period for making healthy changes, it can also be dangerous – since the progression is so slow, people don’t connect their cancer with what they put in their bodies over 30+ years. Especially since they are generally not taught what the food is actually doing to their bodies. All they really know about it is that it tastes good, it’s what everyone else is eating, and it’s what they’ve always been eating.

And after decades of eating the Standard American Diet, starting a fiber supplement is not going to be enough. If you are in your fifties or younger, and/or if you have already developed chronic health issues, it is imperative that you make significant changes now.

Start with fiber-based. Since the last thing any of us needs is another war, don’t go picking fights with the meat-eaters in your life (including, possibly, yourself). Remember, the danger with animal protein in the gut, as part of a junk food diet, is it’s just sitting there and rotting for days. Fiber will move it out. So rather than try to force yourself or others to stop eating meat, which can be a losing battle – men especially seem to have a deep, primal attachment to eating meat – love yourself (and anyone you are preparing food for) by providing plenty of fiber so that the meat is quickly moving through and the colon is getting cleaned by the fiber.

My instructor would probably disagree with this – he says that giving up animal foods is the best thing anyone can do to save the planet – and he’s probably right. But I think junk food is the bigger problem – chips, cookies, candy, pop, donuts, ice cream, cake, pizza, etc. These mass manufactured foods have been around for only the past hundred years or so, and people are eating them all day every day. And you know what? There are vegan versions of them too – and I don’t believe they are any healthier.

These foods are foreign to nature and the human body. Though difficult to study or prove, humans do seem to have been eating meat throughout history – but has the human body ever fallen apart so spectacularly as it does today? I believe it’s due to processed junk foods having taken over the diet and replaced fiber-rich foods – combined of course with the toxic practices of the mass meat industry.

What’s easier or more likely for someone to give up – meat or junk food? (Assuming the meat is of some quality, and not McDonald’s meat, in which case it’s both). While junk food addiction is a real thing, it can be overcome in a matter of days with a water fast, or a few months with a healthy diet, and people can only benefit from giving it up.

But switching from omnivore to vegan is a huge undertaking. Not only is it an extreme change, but there is no medical support for it – your doctor isn’t going to be able to guide you. There’s information on the Internet, yes – a sea of conflicting information you can easily drown in. There are lots of ways to do vegan wrong. Technically, Oreos and Coca-Cola are vegan. People can definitely still be unhealthy and deficient on a vegan diet.

So I’m not really that into “vegan”.

But fiber-based or fiber-rich, I LOVE.

Fiber is about meeting your needs, and it’s inclusive of everyone. No matter where you are on the dietary spectrum, you can eat fiber, and it’s gonna help (as long as you are doing it in a balanced way).

And then as time goes on, and there is more fiber in the diet and less junk food, and health outcomes are improving and people are feeling good, they may start to rely more and more on non-animal sources for their protein, such as lentils, chickpeas, hemp seeds, and more – which amazingly, provide the body with even more fiber (and are much easier and less expensive to acquire and prepare than meat).

How blessed we are to live in an age of information and to have the power to choose what we eat. For such a long time, knowledge was limited, choices were few and we had to eat whatever was available. Now there is an abundance of different foods on the market, along with clinical studies, articles, gurus, diet books and cookbooks. There has never been more support for eating a healthy diet.

At the same time, fiber-rich foods are nothing new. It’s what dietitians have been saying, and humans have been eating, since the beginning. So why do people “know” fruits and vegetables are healthy, and still not choose them?

It seems people are still inclined to eat culturally rather than rationally. It’s one thing to know the right thing to do, but another thing to do it – especially when everyone around you is doing the opposite. It takes a lot of strength to stand on your own, and I personally have failed many times. In many ways I had to withdraw from culture (almost everyone and everything), but in reality, humans have survived this long by banding together. That is why I am so grateful for the HHP course I am in – it’s like my magnetic north that I keep turning to to remind myself of that world where I belong and that I am not alone in this journey to it.

For further study from pioneers in this new world . . .

Tips for Fiber Challenged People – Mic the Vegan and Dr Angie Sadeghi

This interview addresses some of the challenges people may experience with a high-fiber diet. Mic has a huge library of videos worth watching.

Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist – NutritionFacts.org

Mentioned by Mic the Vegan, this is an app that can help you track your fiber intake. I also have his “How Not to Die Cookbook” checked out right now. However, he does use nutritional yeast and soy often, which I consider avoid foods. Still worthwhile since those can be omitted or substituted, and NutritionFacts.org has tons of substantiated health information.

ImmunoNutrition – Dietary Biohacks for Your Immune System – Irminne Van Dyken, MD

Definitely not your typical doctor, she gives a thoughtful presentation on the human microbiome and how to support it. Also includes a mention of telomeres.

Dr. Burkitt Interview by Dr. McDougall

A Scottish doctor who became known as the “Fiber Doctor” after he went to work at a hospital in Nigeria and saw zero colon issues in 17 million people, leading him to conclude their fiber-rich diets prevented chronic disease.

Up the Wrong Butt, Colonoscopy – Guidelines for Colorectal Cancer Prevention – John McDougall, MD

Another atypical doctor, he discourages the use of colonoscopy and gives a much safer and less expensive alternative. Interestingly (to me anyway), he is from Michigan and did his residency in my hometown (Grand Rapids).

What is the Real Fast Food? – Jeff Novick, RD

I love this man’s mind. He has such a good way of explaining complex concepts so they are easy to understand. He has several lectures and cooking DVDs, which I rented from my library. He does a great job of showing how to make very quick and easy healthy meals that taste good. I ate one for lunch today. 🙂 He also used to be an executive at Kraft foods and made a total 180, which I really admire.

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