by Dr. Sujit Sharma
Almost every day, we hear about a secret ingredient that will change our lives forever, possibly even lead us to the fountain of youth. Sometimes these ingredients have been “hidden” for centuries somewhere in a rain forest in exotic parts of the world. The worst part is, we fall for it. Why?
While we laugh at people who bought into Snake Oil almost a century ago, we need to step back and appreciate that every generation, even today, has been sold something claimed to have almost magical potential to make us healthier. As a doctor on a journey to better understand nutrition, it seems we truly want to believe in a magic pill. Science has come such a long way, so why not?
Having witnessed the impact of childhood obesity firsthand for the past 15 years, I can tell you we need to keep searching for that “magic pill”, even if it isn't technically a pill. To routinely see kids barely in their teens pushing 300 pounds, it’s no surprise that problems such as type 2 diabetes and essential hypertension (both typically “adult” diseases) are now issues I’m managing in the hospital.
With asthma and other allergic problems on the rise nationally, there's definite concern that the foods we eat, and our style of eating, contribute to the volume of kids we are seeing in emergency departments around the country. But the problem is even bigger than that. Based on current health trends, the next generation of Americans may not live as long as their predecessors. This is alarming, given that public health measures have helped us increase lifespan over the past 100 years! In 1900 the average lifespan in the U.S. was about 44; by the year 2000, it increased to 77 years of age.
But enough ranting. I promised to get to the secret ingredient that can alter the negative health statistics in the U.S. and potentially get us back on track to longer, healthier lives. That secret ingredient is something you may have heard of; it’s called fiber.
Fiber is a type of non-digestible carbohydrate found only in plant-based foods we eat. Carbohydrates, protein and lipids (aka fatty acids or fats) are all macronutrients that provide energy to our cells. Both the soluble and insoluble forms of fiber are an essential part of the human diet. The average adult should consume, at minimum, 25-35 grams of fiber per day, yet most Americans only get between 10-15 grams per day. I’ll wait while you digest that alarming statistic (pun intended).
Fiber plays many roles in our bodies. One of the critical functions is helping slow the release of sugar into our bloodstream. So, if you have a meal or beverage with a lot of calories (usually from carbs) but little to no fiber, the sugar in your blood spikes and causes insulin to spike as well. If you are exercising and burning calories immediately after this meal or drink, then this surge isn’t a bad thing, as the sugar is metabolized quickly for energy. But for most of us, the excess carbs and other calories will be eventually stored as fat. Also, insulin jumping up and down repeatedly isn’t good for your body.
Because fiber is non-digestible, it helps to promote digestive health by attracting water into the intestines, promoting better clearance of stool and toxins from the body and preventing constipation (let's face it, this is a big problem for a lot of people). Based on scientific research, fiber plays a role in decreasing risk of heart attacks and strokes (by the way, heart disease is the #1 killer of Americans) by helping lower cholesterol and inflammation in the body. Increasing fiber in the diet is also clinically proven to help people lose weight, and a recent study out of Harvard reports that women who consumed higher amounts of fiber in their diets in their youth had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer later in life.
Every year, U.S. News and World Report publishes its listing of the best diets. Their panel is made up of some the nation’s top clinical nutrition experts and they believe there is not one diet that is perfect; different diets fit different people and lifestyles. They rank diets based on different categories, but what’s interesting when you look at their top 10 list of best overall diets, such as DASH, Mediterranean, and Mayo Clinic diets, you find one thing at their core: A healthy intake of fiber by eating fresh, plant-based foods.
Plant-based foods can be grouped into fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Now, let's put things into perspective. We get hungry (often) and need something to snack on. Per calorie, value should be partly driven by how much fiber we are getting (in addition to taste). According to USDA, an average slice of cheese pizza gives you 2.5 grams of fiber per 280 calories. In a bag of one of the best selling potato chips on the market, you get 1 gram of fiber, in a 280 calorie serving. Grabbing a delicious and popular donut, you got 1 gram of fiber for the 190 calories.
Bottom line, the inclusion of fiber helps to balance the food and drinks we consume and make them more functional. Yet, what we are grabbing isn't giving us much. Most Americans get less than half of their daily fiber requirement, as we are immersed with options that have become increasingly convenient (and tasty). Look at every food or drink option that is marketed to you these days and ask yourself, “What is the fiber content in that serving, and how many grams of fiber are you getting for the calories?” Chances are, there's close to none.
By increasing daily fiber intake substantially, Americans can make an enormous improvement in disease prevention and health maintenance. Health Care costs are currently $2.5 trillion dollars a year and climbing. This is not sustainable and has the potential to cripple our economy. If I could pick one ‘secret’ ingredient to help improve the health of individuals and collectively for our country, it would be fiber. It’s not Snake Oil, it's the truth.