Do fiber supplements work?
I am not shy about elimination discussions. Being diagnosed with an intestinal disease will do that to a person! Ulcerative colitis has made me more familiar with intestines, bowels, and poop than I ever wanted to be. But on the bright side, it has led me to discover invaluable information about how to heal myself!
“Here, just take Metamucil”
I’ve always tended toward constipation. Since I was eight years old, doctors have been diligently repeating their “solution” to this issue: Eat more whole grains with fiber and take this Metamucil/Benefiber/Senna Tablets as needed.
I didn’t know that eating more whole grains was not only ineffective for my constipation, but was actually worsening my digestion.
I also didn’t realize that these laxitives were actually harming my intestines. For example, muscle-stimulating laxatives like Senna are actually addicting–your bowels become weakened and lazy by relying on the muscle stimulant.
Faithfully, I snacked on high fiber bread, fiber-fortified bars, and fiber-fortified cereals. As you can imagine, I felt confused and helpless when this prescribed regimine did nothing to promote regularity.
When I began a grain free diet, I removed these fiber-fortified foods from my life. Though I was consuming less fiber, my bowel movements became regular for the first time in my life. Though it confused me at the time, it makes sense after discovering the problems with fiber supplements.
1. Isolated Fiber is not a Real Food
Here are five questions that I suggest you ask yourself to determine if an item is real food:
- Is it a product or is it a food?
- Is it made with ingredients that humans have used for thousands of years?
- Is this something that your great-grandmother would recognize as food?
- Can you make it in your kitchen with grocery store ingredients?
- Is it advertised on TV?
Fiber supplements and fiber-fortified foods are fake food, just as much as canola oil is a fake food. In answer to the above questions, fiber supplements are products, not food. You won’t find isolated Metamucil or any such isolated fiber in nature, and neither would your grandmother recognize it as food. You can’t make it in your kitchen, and it is indeed advertised on TV.
If we consider the traditional diets that produced thriving cultures, we see that many diets contained little to no grain-based fiber.
As discovered by Weston A. Price, a 19th century nutrition pioneer, the Masai tribe subsisted on the meat, milk and blood from their cattle. The native Inuit also grew strong and healthy one a primarily animal-based diet of fish, fish eggs, seal oil, caribou. This was supplemented with plant products like kelp, berries and nuts.
2. Fiber supplements can worsen constipation
Fiber is most commonly applauded as a way to stay regular. The early studies that prompted the high fiber movement found that young, healthy study participants had better bowel movements. The participants were not constipated in the beginning. Current studies show that a high fiber diet may actually exacerbate constipation. According to Science Daily:
The role of dietary fiber to treat chronic constipation is exaggerated. A low fiber diet has been proven not to be the cause of constipation and the success of fiber intake as treatment is modest. The study reviewed conducted by Voderholzer et al showed that only 20% of slow transit patients benefited from fiber. Further data suggests that while many patients may be helped by a fiber-rich diet, some actually suffer from worse symptoms when increasing their fiber intake.
Why do fiber supplements worsen constipation? Because they are dehydrating. Whereas fruit and vegetables contain fiber paired with water and electrolytes, fiber supplements are stripped of these nutrients. Isolated fiber absorbs water in the digestive tract, which can make fecal matter more compact and difficult to eliminate.
3. Fiber supplements can throw gut flora out of whack
Consuming grain-based fiber and fiber-fortified foods can devastate gut flora. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride in The Gut and Psychology Syndrome,
“A diet high in fiber from grains (brans and breakfast cereals in particular) has a profound negative effect on the gut flora, gut health and general body metabolism, predisposing the person to IBS, bowel cancer, nutritional deficiencies, and many other problems. Fruit and vegetables provide a much better quality fiber that is not as harsh on the digestive system.”
You may have noticed symptoms including gas, bloating and belching after eating fiber supplements. Isolated fiber consumption often produces these symptoms due to the fermentation action of gut bacteria.
Further, grain fiber contains large amounts of phytic acid, a compound which “locks” onto minerals like zinc, copper, iron and calcium. Traditional cultures practiced fermenting or soaking their grains to reduce the phytic acid and thereby making consumed minerals bioavailable. Of course, modern grain products, such as fiber-fortified bread and cereals, are not properly prepared and contain high amounts of phytic acid.
Real vs. Fake Fiber
Is all fiber bad? Certainly not! We do need to create a balanced fiber intake, however.
Soluble fiber, the fiber found in fruits and vegetables is much more gentle on the digestive tract. Small amounts of this fiber acts as food for the bacteria – friendly and unfriendly bugs alike – in our digestive tract and is called a prebiotic.
Insoluble fiber carries the problems discussed in this post. It is found in fiber-fortified foods, fiber supplements, and grain products like “whole grain” items, cereals, breads and pastas. The insoluble fiber content as well as other aspects make grains in general a strain on the digestive tract. All grains, but especially high fiber whole grain products, should be strictly limited (or completely avoided).
Here’s the important takeaway point from this whole post: We get all the fiber we need if we enjoy plenty of freshly-prepared vegetables.
5 Natural Constipation Remedies
If you are wondering how to address constipation without fiber supplements, I have you covered. I’ve been there, done that!
Read my post 5 steps to cure constipation naturally for steps that effectively address the root causes of constipation.
have been eating cereals for this new diet and since then I have had constipation and so so much gas. I could not figure out the problem. I now know what the issue is.
Why do US websites post erroneous information that fiber is required in your diet. I did buy fiber gummy worms as a result of reading those articles.
I was recently in Asia and just fine because I was eating fresh foods. I am going to return the gummy worms and stop eating the cereal.
Thank you again!
Also, I forgot to state, that the diet I am is Jenny Craig. I asked them whether this was all processed foods and they said no, its real food. I don’t think so.. This is why I have so much gas.
I have read other blogs on Jenny Craig foods and they do cause a lot of gas. Other women have complained as well..
Why do US companies do that and lie to consumers? This messed me up. Thank god. I have the wisdom to figure this out and quit eating this crap..
I’ve always thought there was something wrong with the fact that my doctor kept pushing fiber on me. I’ve had multiple surgeries (colon resections) and had to learn how to ‘manage my poop’ on my own by throwing out what the doctors told me and starting over. Great article!!!
great post although i think you should stress that fruit/veggie fiber can be just as bad as grains. i was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis after my stint as a raw fruit vegan. i 1000000% blame it on all the fiber i was ingesting and now i can’t reverse the damage.
Lauren G (Empowered Sustenance)
Yes, I agree with you that fibrous veggies, especially raw vegetables, can still be quite damaging. A lot of factors contributed to my ulcerative colitis diagnosis years ago, but I’m sure part of it was the high fiber diet I consumed previously. Are you on a grain free diet now? I would point you to the autoimmune paleo protocol: http://empoweredsustenance.com/autoimmune-paleo-protocol/
Hi Lauren, I’ve been reading through all of your post and agree with many things you discuss. However, I was vegan for 5 years and my digestion was better in those five years than it has ever been in my life. I got tired of beans and rice and more beans and rice. So I quit the vegan diet. I have been eating organic since I was 10, thankfully my mother caught on and being in the Pacific Northwest, organic eating was no issue. Since introducing meat and eggs and very limited dairy into my diet my body is NOT happy. I don’t have the quality digestion I had when I was vegan. I take probiotics and buy all my food from PCC. I have acne all over my face and other parts as well. I don’t understand what the issue is. I know you’ve been to Seattle, do you recommend anyone in the area that would be worth seeing? Thank you 🙂
I agree that it’s important not to go overboard on grains of any kind, even the whole wheat variety. I however, could not go without my prunes and Fiber One bars and bread, they are delicious, filling and work for me. Being a 22 year old male in a wheelchair, I lost a great deal of weight and never used to have a diet including fiber until recent years with the weight loss. If I was fortunate I would go to the restroom with at least minimal difficult every other day, Fiber, mainly from fruits and vegetables keep me on a daily schedule now for the most part, and I could never give up the stuff,
Hi Lauren, how much fibre would you recommend? I’m completely grain and starch free (scd) but by the time I’ve had one avocado and a portion or two of vegetables I’m already over what you’re saying is too high. This would seem to restrict the diet even further and I’m not sure what to eat anymore seeing as I need to gain weight significantly.
Such a great article. I have suffered from constipation for years. In my teens and early 20s I was lucky if I went once a week. Things got better briefly in my late 20s but then in my 30s, I suffered from terrible IBS-C and was advised to increase fiber, decrease meat, go vegetarian, go vegan… all those things made me so much worse. Now I am in my 40s, Paleo plus potatoes for 3 years now. But I think the damage is done. I think I have a motility disorder now. Tomorrow I have an upper endo and colonoscopy to check for UC due to recent changes in my symptoms. I have a friend with gastroparesis who is teaching me that even all that cooked veggie fiber I have been eating on Paleo may be too much. I’m learning to cut down and eat veg that are very well-cooked and that have less fiber to begin with. I just wanted to say, out of all the nutrition bloggers out there, I really value your info the most. It seems to go along more with what makes intuitive sense to me than any other. I hope after you get done at Bastyr you write a book!
Great article. I suspect this is what is giving me bad gas and bloating. I’ve recently been consuming alot of coconut flour and snacking on flax seed.
What is your take on coconut flour and flax seed?
Norm and Marg Shaw
We would be interested in your comments regarding sour dough bread. My wife thinks your background is Armenian but don’t feel you have to answer her. A really down to earth common sense attitude on how to live simply and healthy. Congratulations. Norm