Are you looking to improve your health in 2016? If so, you might feel overwhelmed trying to figure out where to begin. In the end, different people benefit from a variety of approaches and goals, but I find myself returning to one message over and over.
(And no, it’s not a juice cleanse.)
What is the single most powerful thing nearly everyone can do to improve their health, you ask?*
Eat more fiber.
We love talking about fancy diets and cleanses, paleo and gluten free, barre classes and CrossFit and parkour. These are exciting, and it’s easy to get passionate about them. But who wants to be hardcore into…fiber?
Maybe it’s about time we are.
You see, fiber is a type of carbohydrate found exclusively in plants (fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains) that the human body cannot break down. That means it adds volume to our food without contributing energy (calories), which has benefits from the time we lay eyes on our meal to the time that meal, well, bids us farewell. Ahem.
– Our eyes like fiber because it takes up space on our plates to make them look fuller (and more satisfying) without us serving up extra helpings of other less nutrient-dense foods.
– Fiber also takes up space in our bellies and takes longer to eat, giving our brains more time to catch up with our stomachs and register when we’ve had enough.
– Fiber’s not in a rush to get out of our stomachs either, which helps regulate satiety (so we don’t get munchy between meals) and can be an extremely powerful tool for managing blood sugars.
– Our intestines like fiber because it gives our digestive tracts a bit of a workout. This keeps things running smoothly and can help manage diarrhea, constipation, diverticulosis, irritable bowel, and Crohn’s (between flares).
– Our hearts really like fiber because it can lower cholesterol by grabbing onto this stuff in the colon called bile, which is made using cholesterol. When fiber traps bile, both substances are excreted together; we have to make more of the bile, so we pull cholesterol out of the blood to do it.
A high-fiber diet does more than just help manage disease, though. When we focus on fiber, we’re focusing on whole, minimally processed, plant-based foods that also happen to be jam-packed with other nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Emphasizing fiber is a way to sneakily start improving the quality of our diets without getting overwhelmed by too much information.
Oh, and we don’t need to buy expensive pills or choke down sawdust-like powders to do it. We can eat real food. Here are some ideas:
1. Experiment with whole grains: Try old-fashioned or steel-cut oats for breakfast, a quinoa or farro salad for lunch, wild rice or whole wheat pasta for dinner, and white whole wheat or oat flour in the occasional sweet treat.
2. Add chopped nuts to cereals, oatmeal, and yogurt; sprinkle them over salads instead of croutons; or snack on a handful when the meeting runs over or dinner is late. You can even get adventurous and turn them into vegan, higher-fiber alternatives to cheese!
3. Work up to getting at least five servings of vegetables each day. You won’t get there overnight, so start small and focus at first on veggies or dishes you already like. It might mean throwing a handful of greens into a morning smoothie or pureeing some butternut squash into an otherwise very cheesy pasta dish for dinner. Or it could mean turning cauliflower into rice, zucchini into spaghetti, or a big salad into lunch. There are so many possibilities!
4. Add sweetness with fruit. Instead of brown sugar in oatmeal, try berries and cinnamon; instead of jam on a PB&J sandwich, try sliced apples. Make a chopped fruit salsa for white fish or chicken, slice pears or peaches into a salad, or cook down frozen fruit with a little water into a compote for anything from waffles to banana “ice cream.”
5. Work beans into your Meatless Monday. Use them to reduce or replace meat in soups, chilis, and stews; try your hand at a bean-based veggie burger; make hummus your condiment of choice; or roast up some chickpeas for a crunchy salad topper or stand-alone snack.
When it comes to your health this year, keep it simple, be courageous (and patient!), and don’t forget your favorite F word: fiber.
Bring it on, 2016!
*There are certain individuals who, for medical reasons, must be on a low-fiber diet or avoid specific sources of fiber. It’s always important to discuss significant dietary changes with your doctor first and foremost and pay attention to your body’s reaction if and when you do decide to make a change.