Beyond the macronutrients, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, are the micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—plus roughage. First Roughage. Roughage is the fiber, the filaments of cellulose, lignans and pectins in plants that resist the physical macerations and the chemical and enzymatic washes of digestion. So you may ask, why bother? Why run matter through the system that resists the body’s breakdown mechanisms and comes out the other end rather inelegantly as poop and gas? Surely Miss Manners would advise, if she would comment on the subject, “Hold back on the fiber.” For it is better that this “socially non-existent event (and here we speak of gas) actually be non-existent. Most Americans would seem to agree. For the average American gets 15 grams of fiber per day while the Institute of Medicine recommends that women get 25 grams and men 38. The result is we are getting about half of what is considered optimal, but, hey, we’re saving on the Charmin and the air around us doesn’t reek of sulfur or festering lilies.
So why bump up fiber intake when the result will undoubtedly be more production of bodily effluvia that have a high ick-factor? We should for several reasons, but before delving into the reasons, we need to consider the nature of fiber. Edible fiber, a plant exclusive, comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble.
First, the soluble. The soluble takes on water and acts like a temporary gastric band; but instead of restricting the size of the stomach, the fiber soaks up water and fills the stomach like those gelatin capsules used as party favors. In water, the capsule dissolves, the foam pellet inside swells, increasing from ¾ to 2 ½ inches, and transforms into a soft foam brachiosaurus. Just so, the fibers in plants also expand in the stomach, not becoming reptilians from the Triassic, but giving us that “I couldn’t eat another bite,” or at least “I’m not ravenously hungry” signal. Having eaten soluble fibers, we are—filled, full, stuffed, sated. And unlike the gastric band, if we do eat a little more, we probably won’t vomit, and neither will we and/or the insurance company be slammed with a $14,000 bill for the gastric band procedure. Soluble fiber also helps slow down digestion, keeping the glucose and the insulin levels in the blood from spiking. It reabsorbs the cholesterol that is converted into bile and then used to break down fat, by escorting it out of the blood stream and into the waste stream, thus reducing our LDL (the bad cholesterol) levels. As this cholesterol is dumped down the back passage, more of it is pulled from the bloodstream. In sum, a few of the benefits of soluble fiber are satiety, insulin stability, and reabsorption and removal of LDL cholesterol.
While soluble fiber does the upfront jobs relating to digestion in the stomach and the small intestines, insoluble fiber helps regulate the waste stream and feeds the bacterial hordes that live, for the most part, in symbiotic harmony with us in the large intestine. First, the insoluble fiber, bulks up the stool so that it is bottle brushy and can clean and scour the back passage as the remainders of the digestive process make their way down the muscled rings (ridged like vacuum hoses) that make up the colon. The presence of insoluble fiber speeds transit, an important role since some of what is being evacuated is toxic. Having rapid transit in the colon, not only reduces the contact with substances that are harmful, but it also allows for less recycling, by these industrious, bacterial hordes, of hormones like estrogen and compounds like cholesterol that are better jettisoned. But that is only part of the their job.
The multitudes of bacteria accountable for the recycling are also in the business of manufacturing. Through fermentation, they take insoluble fiber and construct short-chained fatty acids, butyrate, proprionate, and acetate. Butyrate is used for maintenance of the colon itself, keeping the lining, which is saran wrap thin, healthy and non-permeable (important since nobody wants a leaky gut with endotoxins entering the bloodstream and setting off an inflammatory response). The proprionate is sent to liver, and acetate is used by the peripheral circulatory system. The bacteria also produce a bicarbonate to help neutralize acid; then they extract and make available to the Monarch (that’s us) some vitamins, particularly Vitamin K and Biotin, a B vitamin. To do this, they turn the large intestine into a vast fermentation chamber. In the process of breaking down the insoluble fibers, these beneficial products are produced in the same way that cabbage and cucumbers placed into crocks under briny solutions come out as pickles and sauerkraut. Anaerobic decomposition and transformation takes place in our guts, in our soils, and in our crockery. It’s a recycling process that renews ourselves and the planet.
So when we sit down to a meal, we are eating not for one, or even two if pregnant, but for trillions. The bacteria that live on our skin and teeth and our lower gut can be friends or foes, depending in part on how we feed them. The majority are housed in our lower gut (a third of the weight of our feces is their dear departed). The modern diet of processed foods starves them of fiber and encourages the growth of bad actors that produce toxins. They become like peasants in medieval Europe—armed with pitchforks, refusing to work, and creating chaos because our highly-processed diet has been like the Black Plague to them; they have been starved by the low roughage diets and assaulted with antibacterial regimes that have depleted the ranks of the most useful and encouraged the growth of some miscreants like Clostridium difficil and E. coli 0157:H7. Their rebellion is evidence by their failure to produce nutrients that we need and recapture energy. The colon becomes leaky because without the right fibers the bacteria cannot manufacture the butyrate that maintains itself. Worse still, they send subversive agents (toxins) into our bloodstreams. To quell the rebellion, we need to feed the colon with lots of soluble and insoluble fiber from fruits and vegetables, as well as seeds.
All seeds have a form of insoluble fiber called cellulose “nature’s natural laxative.” They also contain a soluble form of fiber called pectins, which lowers blood cholesterol. In addition, flaxseed, which has about equal amounts of soluble and insoluble fibers, has a form of insoluble fiber called lignin, which benefits the heart, and a form of soluble fiber called mucilage, which coats the digestive system and protects it from irritation and inflammation. This again makes flaxseed a very good choice if you grind it finely just before eating; otherwise, it sluices through the system intact, so that not even the gut bacteria can release its nutrient potential. Chia is another excellent source of fiber because of the very high fiber content. Further. Chia seeds do not need to be ground beforehand, and their high antioxidant content means that they do not go rancid nearly as quickly if ground.
The chart below shows the fiber content of the super six seeds.
|Nut/Seed||Total Fiber,g in 2T|
Our long, symbiotic relationship with some of the bacteria in our lower gut is evident in the presence of oligiosaccharides in breast milk. Babies do not have the enzyme to digest these compounds, but the bacteria in their colons do. Breast milk has evolved to allow newborns to survive and thrive and part of that survival is feeding the bacteria in the babies’ colon too. We are well beyond surviving on breast milk, but we continue to manage their food stores. When fed right, they feed us.