I hesitated to write this article—I really did. I almost bailed again when I couldn’t think of a snazzy title. How do you make fiber sound interesting? Words like flatulence, bloating, diarrhea and irritable bowel disease didn’t seem to fit the demographic—I save those for my kids. Still, the questions roll in, and the topic comes up every day. It seems that clients are always talking about poop; how did my career end up here?
Fiber has always been a misunderstood substance, but modern food-manufacturing processes—especially in the low-carb industry—have brought a lot of dysfunction and pain into lives, needlessly. Then there are the backwoods “Duck Dynasty’”–like shamans as well as locker-room scientists convincing people to ingest all manner of things. It’s time to chop up fiber into an outline of myths and mistakes.
Myth 1: We need to get fiber at every meal. Fiber is helpful and I would say necessary—for bowel function. Get too little, and you can be constipated or even suffer bouts of diarrhea—two sides of the same coin. Low-fiber diets are associated with inflammatory bowel disease and cancer and even linked to heart disease because they usually indicate that someone is eating a lot of sugar and fat.
Think of fiber as the scrub brush or broom of your gastrointestinal system. Too much, though, and binding agents such as starch can’t do their job, making diarrhea probable. Conversely, too little fiber can create impaction, turning a dietary mistake into a grave medical issue.
Over time too much abuse of your large intestine will create tissue-level inflammation, and that’s a nightmare you want to avoid. Colitis, ulcerative colitis and milder forms of inflammatory-bowel disease are painful and more dysfunctional than you would want me to describe. I suggest eating a good serving of vegetables in a couple of meals and a serving or two of fruit per day and taking a fiber supplement, if needed. Experimentation and note taking are important.
Myth 2: If you have a sensitive gastrointestinal system, eat a macrobiotic diet. It seems that everyone I meet who has suffered gastrointestinal distress thinks eating a so-called better diet with truckloads of vegetables is the answer. Nothing could be worse. Raw roughage and complex, hard-to-digest grains will create more inflammation and cause worsening symptoms. Instead, you should limit raw vegetables and avoid the most complex. You may need to decrease the size and frequency of salads and eat only small amounts of steamed vegetables at a time. Starch is a friend to someone who has inflammatory-bowel issues, but fiber is still necessary. It just has to lean toward a more soluble type and maybe a supplement.
Myth 3: To lose weight, you should eat only fibrous carbs. I think you’re getting the hang of this and can bust this myth on your own now. Too much fiber is too much fiber. People who get caught in this trap miss the chance to include more satisfying, more anabolic and more metabolic complex-starch sources. Yes, your body needs starch, even when you’re dieting. Cutting out carbs completely will reduce metabolism faster and increase muscle catabolism more than any other diet method. The fact that many of these people end up with serious bowel inflammation is just rubbing salt into the wound after they’ve already been deceived by misinformation.
Myth 4: For better regularity, eat more vegetables. Say it with me now: Eating too many vegetables is harmful. People often avoid fruit because of the carbs, but the fiber found in most fruit is extremely helpful with stool formation. If you eat a serving of dry fruit every day—trust me, it’s worth saving carbs for—you’ll have such clean dumpage that you won’t even need to wipe. (I recommend wiping just in case.)
On that note, some people need more fat in their diet to ensure regularity. Flaxseed oil is a favorite for its omega-3 properties, but a small serving or two per day can be magical for ease of movement—practically a little turd tornado.
Myth 5: It’s normal to have gas, bloating and pain. How many people have you heard say that gas and pain is just part of eating healthy? “Gotta be that protein!” Jokes become flippant, but no one realizes that the inflammatory process being caused could have long-term consequences. When polysaccharides can’t be digested in the upper G.I. tract, the bacteria of the lower G.I. consume and ferment them, and the by-product is methane gas. That isn’t just annoying, it’s inflammatory.
Is it necessary to eat things we can’t digest? No. It’s your choice, but you have to know the options. Consider soy, legumes, harsh vegetable fiber and, of course, lactose as the primary offenders, and cut them out. Follow a basic diet, and then start adding one thing at a time. You will find that there are some items you can eat in small quantities, but they have a finite amount of digestibility for you. Some foods you will be better off avoiding completely.
Myth 6: That food bloats me immediately! Rarely do people have upper–G.I. issues to the point that they feel bloated with a normal-sized meal. Still, when you eat a meal, your intestinal tract—all 20-some feet of it—moves. Food in; food out. A meal eaten now causes the G.I. tract to push all the food and waste to collect in the colon. The methane gas production and pain felt is happening at the other end, not in your stomach.
A normal full transit time is 18 to 24 hours, sometimes longer. When you feel bloated after a meal, it’s the meal you consumed 18 to 24 hours before that is the problem. Track food and comments with time stamps so you can play CSI: Rectal Division in your effort to eliminate suspect food sources.
The exception is when something causes a strong allergic reaction or something you eat is a harsh irritant—your body will try to expel it that much faster, but it’s not gas and bloating you need to worry about. You’ll be sprinting to the bathroom, and, one hopes, getting your butt tucked before you spray-coat the wall with the five-alarm habanero salsa you ate or the 36 greasy wings you swallowed whole at the bar.
Myth 7: The food industry has your best interests at heart. I hate to go all Ralph Nader on you, but companies jump on trends to make a buck. Incentive drives every decision at every level, and the primary need is success—theirs, not yours. From cheap protein and soy additives in protein bars and shakes to nasty filler fiber in low-carb breads, the diet industry is destroying gut health one roll of toilet paper at a time. Take every processed food out of your diet, and then add one back in at a time for a couple of days to isolate the ones that create intestinal trauma. There are no quick fixes—don’t fall for marketing hype.
Myth 8 : Psyllium is good for you. I mentioned that sometimes a fiber supplement is necessary, but many cause more problems than they resolve. Harsh fibers like psyllium (Metamucil is the common trade name) may be the most absorbent, but they’re also the most gas forming. I often recommend a scoop of sugar-free Citrucel—methylcellulose—because it’s more subtle, and if you need a little more fiber, add a half teaspoon or more of psyllium. One serving per day with breakfast can create much better regularity.
Fun aside, bowel health is a serious matter, and suffering doesn’t have to be a part of good health, weight loss or physique management. Never settle for cliché, cookie-cutter diet plans that leave you doubled over. Never trust anyone who advocates a processed low-carb food. And, finally, learn a couple of good fart jokes—you’ll be the life of every party.
Editor’s note: Joe Klemczewski, Ph.D., is a former World Cup bodybuilding champion who helps bodybuilders, figure competitors and weekend warriors achieve their best condition through his unique online “Perfect Peaking” program. To contact him, write to dr.joe@thedietdoc