If the produce selection at the local grocery store seems vast, it may be surprising to learn that only a fraction of edible, nutritious, and tasty plant foods are represented on those well-stocked shelves. Westerners typically eat only about 20-50 of the 20,000 species of edible plants, which may be a significant contributor to their rapidly declining health. Our physical health is dependent upon our gut health and a healthy gut microbiome is dependent upon the consumption of a diverse array of plant foods.
Perhaps one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer populations remaining in the world can provide some insight into cultivating optimal gut health. The Hadza people in Tanzania have one of the most diverse gut microbiomes on the planet, about 40 percent higher than the average American.
Compare the average Hadza consumption of about 100-150 grams of fiber per day from eating almost 600 species of seasonal plants with the average American consumption of 15 grams of fiber per day mostly sourced from grains. It’s easy to see why the Hadza have avoided most of the diseases that have afflicted the average American – obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
The American Heart Association recommends eating 25-35 grams of fiber per day with some microbiome authors suggesting at least 40 grams each day. And the type of fiber you consume matters. Your gut bacteria need “prebiotic” fibers along with a diverse array of plant foods to function optimally.
Prebiotics are the best at feeding the healthy bacteria in our guts which improves overall health. All vegetables are good sources of prebiotics, but the following stand out:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Brussels sprouts
Not only do prebiotic fibers help to keep your bowels regular, they also improve the composition of the gut microbiome by strengthening intestinal walls, improving absorption of important nutrients, producing hormones that control appetite, reducing anxiety, and helping to protect you against chronic disease. Studies also show that a diet high in fiber lowers high blood pressure along with the risk of stroke. It reduces the risk of heart disease by binding with “bad” cholesterol and removing it from your body.
It’s best not to double or triple your fiber intake overnight if you’re unaccustomed to consuming high amounts of plant foods. You may just find that your gut rebels with constipation, diarrhea, pain, bloating, and gas. Give your digestive system and gut microbiome some time to adapt to digesting large amounts of fiber by gradually increasing the amount you eat by 1 to 2 grams a day over several weeks.
It may be tempting to make legumes, or beans, a staple in your diet due to their high fiber content. If these don’t disturb your health, then this may be an appropriate choice for you. However, many people cannot tolerate the lectins in legumes as they trigger inflammation or autoimmune flare-ups. For those with SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, they can also cause intense digestive issues and inflammatory responses.
Others, particularly those with arthritis, may need to avoid nightshade vegetables, another inflammatory trigger. The nightshade family includes eggplant, potatoes (but not sweet potatoes or yams), peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, hot pepper products (cayenne, Tabasco, etc.) and pepper-based spices. Removing nightshades from the diet has brought relief to many who suffer from joint pain, especially those with rheumatoid arthritis.
What does a high fiber paleo diet look like?
Most people with chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders would do well to eliminate grains and legumes and follow a paleo diet which includes high fiber alternatives.
Aim for at least three to four servings of produce at each meal, which equals about 1.5 to 2 cups of chopped vegetables or 3 cups of leafy greens. Alternatively, you could break that up into five meals if you need to eat more frequently to stabilize low blood sugar. Always lean toward veggies and fruit that have a lower sugar content as even sweeter plant foods can destabilize blood sugar.
If eating fiber makes you miserable, you may have a gut or immune disorder that needs to be resolved first. Contact my office for more ways to support your gut microbiome.