We all talk about superfoods, and how they can benefit our mental and overall health. We’ve focused on cutting carbs, cutting this food item or that one, eating more fat, or only eating during specific times. With all this talk, we have forgotten about (and sometimes eliminated) one of the most important components for our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and mental health - fiber.
When you read or hear that word, most people think of the orange drink their grandma used to have every morning. Fiber is far more than that one drink. There are many types of fiber that serve different purposes in our bodies. Fiber has been shown to decrease inflammation, decrease the risk for chronic disease, increase satiety, keep the body regular, improve cognitive function, and play a role in mental health. Now knowing that, the average American is only getting about 10-15g of fiber per day. The Institute of Medicine’s recommendation is 25g for women, and 38g for men, per day. Additionally, only 5% of the population is getting the recommended amount. This has to change for so many reasons, but especially for our mental health.
Let’s start at the beginning, with understanding what fiber is, and does. There are different classifications of fiber - soluble, insoluble, and fermentable. Insoluble and soluble fibers play roles in helping the body stay regular.
This may not seem very important when you think about mental health, but it is. As the fiber moves through the GI tract, it is actually helping maintain the gut microbiome. This is very important, because without a strong microbiome protecting the lining, there could be breakdown occurring - allowing pathogens into the body, signals to the brain being cut off, and sensitivities presenting themselves. Ensuring you are getting those types of fiber helps keep the gut microbiome intact.
Fermentable fibers are believed to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the gut and mental health. Fermentable fibers can be insoluble or soluble, and slowly move through the large intestine, giving time for fermentation to occur.
When this happens, short-chain fatty acids (SCFA’s) are produced. The SCFA molecules are the precursors to serotonin production in the gut. An astounding 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut and sent throughout the body to be used. This is relevant because, as you may know, serotonin is one of the primary molecules involved with depression and anxiety.
That’s a lot of information regarding how fiber works, why it’s important, and data showing we, as a country, are simply not receiving enough. So, what do you do with all of that information?
We have to examine how we arrived at the point of only eating 5% of the daily recommended amount. The Western diet, otherwise known as the Standard American Diet (SAD), has become full of highly processed foods that lack many of the vitamins, minerals, or food components - like fiber, that have been shown to benefit our mental health. Shifting from the SAD into a diet that focuses more on whole foods is going to be key. A diet high in fiber means eating a base of vegetables at each meal. In fact, half your plate should be vegetables, and an eighth to a quarter should be an additional fiber source. Try introducing fiber to one meal, and once that becomes a staple, move on to the next.
Small changes add up to the greatest successes! If you need some examples of where to start, here are some great options to try:
• Brussels sprouts • dandelion greens • flaxseeds
• chia seeds
• pumpkin seeds
• sweet potatoes
• chicory root
Amanda Kozimor-Perrin is a Registered Dietitian and has her Masters of Science in nutrition. She is currently located in Los Angeles, CA, meets with clients individually, and co-hosts the podcasts “Quarter Life Crisis” and “Yep. I Did That.” Her focus is how food can transform our health, while remembering we are all made up differently - so how we eat should reflect that. She believes in living an 80/20 lifestyle, eating the rainbow, and sometimes you just need that cookie.
Tengeler AC, Kozicz T, Kiliaan AJ. Relationship Between Diet, the Gut Microbiota, and Brain Function. Nutrition Reviews. 2018;76(8):603-617.
Quagliani D, Felt-Gunderson P. Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Jan-Feb; 11(1): 80–85.