As part of a healthy diet, fiber is a nutrient most associated with keeping the digestive tract regular and — thanks to the marketing on the oatmeal container — lowering cholesterol.
But fiber’s role in the body goes way beyond regularity, and one of fiber’s most important roles stems from the influence that gut health has on heart health. To put it simply, a healthier gut means a healthier heart. According to research, a healthy gut has a protective effect on the heart by influencing factors that cause and contribute to heart disease. Check out these four ways that eating fiber protects your heart.
1. Lowers cholesterol in multiple ways
Foods with soluble fiber (such as oats) have demonstrated ability to lower levels of LDL cholesterol — the type of cholesterol we want less of — when eaten consistently and regularly. Soluble fiber attaches to bile, a cholesterol-based compound that assists in digesting fats, and both the fiber and bile are later excreted. The body then uses circulating lipids (fats) to form new bile molecules, lowering total and LDL cholesterol. But in addition to that, research now suggests that gut bacteria also influence blood lipid levels. In fact, bacteria in healthy guts play a role in lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
2. Prevents inflammation
Gut health plays a key role in the inflammatory process. The mechanism works like this: A healthy gut creates a protective barrier in the intestines, allowing nutrients to pass into the bloodstream but blocking out many inflammatory compounds in food. When these good bacteria are disrupted or become unbalanced, this barrier isn’t as effective and starts to “leak,” allowing those compounds into the body. Because most chronic conditions are driven by inflammation, promoting gut health with a healthy, fiber-rich diet is key for preventing heart disease as well as a host of other lifestyle-related conditions.
3. Lowers blood pressure
Fiber can’t be digested, but good bacteria in the gut can ferment some fibers in the colon. The fermentation process produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). These SCFA provide energy and nutrients for the bacteria, and research suggests that SCFA production can also lower blood pressure. In fact, eating a high-fiber diet is even considered a treatment for hypertension by some health professionals, since increasing fiber intake is the best way to increase SCFA production.
4. Helps you lose belly fat
Consuming a high-fiber diet is associated with less abdominal fat, or fat in the midsection. This is important since people who carry extra weight in their abdominal area are at higher risk for developing heart disease. Increasing daily fiber can help with weight loss by slowing down the digestive process to provide a feeling of fullness and satiety. And it can also increase the number and diversity of good bacteria to reduce inflammation, which is also now considered an underlying driver of obesity.
The gut-heart connection is a new area of research with lots of unknowns. Until research offers more insight, we do know that eating plenty of fiber-rich foods is one of the best ways to support gut health and that most of us need to get more fiber in each day. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains are the best sources of dietary fiber, providing a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber, so look for ways to sneak more of them into meals and snacks.
(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)
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