We’ve all heard that fiber is an essential part of the diet, but what’s the big deal anyway? Well, it turns out that our bodies have a really hard time letting go (read: pooping) without it. If you’re having trouble with inconsistent bowel movements, this is for you!

What is it?

Fiber is the roughage part of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Unlike protein, fats, and carbs which our bodies absorb and use for fuel, fiber passes through the body without being absorbed by the intestines. The party starts in the colon, where the fiber is either used as food for the healthy bacteria there or serves as a bulking agent for stool, depending on which type of fiber is being consumed.

Soluble fiber dissolves in water and turns into a gel-like fluid that is broken down and fermented by colon bacteria. It helps you feel fuller for longer and slows down the digestive process, which means that it can help balance blood sugar and cholesterol. Needless to say, soluble fiber is a wise addition to your daily diet in the form of apples, pears, citrus fruits, beans, carrots, sweet potato, broccoli, and avocado. Yes, I just gave you another reason to eat avocado. You’re welcome.

Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water, but instead retains water which helps to soften stool and make for a happier ‘number two’ experience. If you’re struggling with constipation, bumping up on these foods may help you out: oats, zucchini, celery, almonds, pears, beans, sweet potato and dried coconut.

The new kid on the block

Resistant starch is another type of fiber that functions similarly to soluble fiber in that it feeds the good guys in your large intestine and colon. After they’re fed, those bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids, one in particular called butyrate. Turns out, butyrate is booty fuel- it fuels the cells lining the colon to keep it in tip top shape. Also a noteworthy benefit, butyrate lowers blood sugar spikes after meals. To experiment with resistant starch, you can try adding some green bananas or plantains to your diet, or use cooked and cooled potatoes (you can reheat them before eating) to get the same effect. Potato starch can also be purchased in supplemental form, but be sure to start slowly with ¼ teaspoon dose and work your way up.

Trial and error

When you’re changing up your fiber intake, easing into it is the best approach to avoid or minimize digestive discomfort like gas and bloating. Though those symptoms can mean that your gut is changing for the better, you want to give your body time to adjust to the change of scenery.   

But how much should you aim for? In general, more is more but it is possible to eat too much fiber. In general, unless you’re only eating plant foods (no dairy, meat, or eggs), you likely won’t overdo it without some serious effort or over supplementation. Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber daily, while men need around 38 grams. Keeping track of your fiber each day until you get your toilet time on track may be useful and will also allow for daily adjustments to your eating routine if you find you’re not getting enough.

Still struggling?

Digestive problems can sometimes be complex, and it can seem like all the healthy foods and supplements in the whole damn world won’t make a difference. If you’ve tried the tips in this article and are still struggling with inconsistent bathroom trips, there’s hope! Working with a functional medicine practitioner or health coach is a path forward to get you the individualized support you need to get better. Schedule a free consultation or search for a functional practitioner in your area to start taking small steps towards better gut health.