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Dietary fiber is a plant-based nutrient that is sometimes called roughage or bulk. It is a type of carbohydrate but, unlike other carbs, it cannot be broken down into digestible sugar molecules. Therefore, fiber passes through the intestinal tract relatively intact. However, on its journey, fiber does a lot of work.
Benefits of fiber
“Dietary fiber aids in improving digestion by increasing stool bulk and regularity,” said Smathers. This is probably fiber’s best-known benefit. Bulkier, softer stools are easier to pass than hard or watery ones, which not only makes life more comfortable, but also helps maintain colorectal health. According to the Mayo Clinic, a high-fiber diet may help reduce the risk of hemorrhoids and diverticulitis (small, painful pouches on the colon).
Fiber also helps lower cholesterol, said Kelly Toups, a registered dietitian with the Whole Grains Council. The digestive process requires bile acids, which are made partly with cholesterol. As your digestion improves, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood to create more bile acid, thereby reducing the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Blood sugar regulation
A meta-analysis of studies regarding the relationship between fiber and blood glucose (blood sugar) levels published in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found that increased fiber intake can reduce blood glucose levels during the standard fasting blood glucose test (a test of blood sugar levels after an overnight fast).
The article showed that levels of HbA1c also decreased with increased fiber. HbA1c refers to glycated haemoglobin, which occurs when proteins in the blood mix with blood sugar. It is associated with increased risk of diabetes complications. Soluble fiber is especially helpful in this regard.
Possible cancer prevention
The research has been mixed regarding the link between fiber and colorectal cancer prevention. While the National Cancer Institute asserts that a high-fiber diet does not reduce the risk to a clinically significant degree, a 2011 meta-analysis from the British Journal of Medicine found an association between cereal fiber and whole grain intake and reduced risk of colorectal cancer.
A more recent animal study suggested that fiber might only cause this benefit if a person possesses the right kind and amount of gut bacteria. Fiber naturally reacts with bacteria in the lower colon and can sometimes ferment into a chemical called butyrate, which may cause cancer cells to self-destruct. Some people naturally have more butyrate-producing bacteria than others, and a high-fiber diet can help encourage the bacteria’s growth.
According to some scientists, fiber could actually help people live longer. A meta-analysis of relevant studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded, “high dietary fiber intake may reduce the risk of total mortality.”
One recent study suggests that cereal fiber, from foods like whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta, is especially effective. Over a 14-year period, those who ate the most cereal fiber were 19 percent less likely to die than those who ate the least.
Food allergies and asthma
New research suggests that fiber could play a role in preventing food allergies, the existence of which has long puzzled scientists. Again, this theory comes down to the interaction between fiber and bacteria in the gut.
Scientists theorize that people are not producing the right gut bacteria to tackle foods commonly associated with allergies, like peanuts and shellfish. Without the right bacteria, particles of these foods can enter the bloodstream via the gut. Fiber helps produce a bacterium called Clostridia, which helps keep the gut secure.
The same reasoning explains why fiber might help people with asthma. Unwanted particles escaping the gut and entering the bloodstream can cause an autoimmune response like asthmatic inflammation. A 2013 animal study found that mice eating a high-fiber diet were less likely to experience asthmatic inflammation than mice on a low- or average-fiber diet.