By Megrette Fletcher M.Ed., RD, CDE
All carbohydrates come from plants, except dairy, which comes from cows that eat plants. Carbohydrates that contain fiber or roughage can aid in digestion, reduce constipation, prevent diseases of the colon, and reduce cholesterol levels. Several studies have shown that eating a high-fiber diet reduces the risk of colon cancer and diabetes! However, in this post we are not going to focus on these amazing benefits of fiber but instead bring our attention to the important role fiber has in digestion and energy balance.
Eating fiber-rich foods can increase your energy because it blunts glucose rise, which prevents the resulting fall of your blood sugar. To understand how your blood sugar changes, imagine a pendulum: On one end is higher blood sugar; for a healthy person without diabetes, this would be a blood glucose up to 140 mg/dL. On the other end of the pendulum is a healthy but lower blood sugar of 70 mg/dl; and in the middle is normal blood sugar, which is under 99 mg/dL. What you eat, how much you eat, and how often you eat are the three ways food will make this pendulum swing.
What You Eat
Let’s take a closer look at what you eat by focusing on fiber. Imagine eating a fiber-rich food, such as whole grain crackers or popcorn. Both of these choices contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, which is a quick way to know you are choosing a fiber-rich food. Both of these choices are oligo or polysaccharides, which are long chains of glucose. It will take time for the body to digest these complex carbohydrates. This delay in digestion has been shown to blunt blood sugar, meaning that the pendulum of digestion is not swinging from one extreme to the other.
The benefits of fiber also work on fructose and galactose, which are monosaccharides found in fruits and dairy. Choosing fruits that are fiber-rich will also help stabilize your energy level. The fiber in fruits is found in the seeds, membrane or the skin. High-fiber fruits include all berries, kiwi, pomegranates because of their seeds; citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, and clementines are fiber-rich because you eat the membrane; and apples, pears, peaches and grapes have the fiber in their skin.
Fruits that are lower in fiber have had the skin removed, such as in applesauce, or you don’t eat the seeds or skin, such as melons. All fruit juice is low in fiber because the seeds, skin and membrane have been removed as part of the juicing process.
How Much Matters
Now let’s shift to how much you eat. If you choose a larger amount of low-fiber foods, you will find that your blood sugar may swing up because you have given the pendulum a big push. Unfortunately, once these carbohydrates are digested, the supply of glucose will run out and the pendulum will swing back. Your energy level is like that pendulum, swinging from having energy to not having much energy. If you need some quick energy, go ahead have that 4-ounce glass of juice or a few crackers to ease the pain of hunger. However, more carbohydrates do not make blood sugar rise faster, they just make blood sugar rise higher and actually can create the feeling of fatigue.
How to Teach This Concept to Your Kids
Think of the thermostat at your house. You can adjust the dial, increasing or decreasing the temperature. Imagine you have decided that your house is too cold and you want to warm it up. Thermostats are a simple device that only tell the furnace to turn the heat on or shut it off. When your thermostat is set for 70 degrees, the furnace will kick on if the temperature falls below 70. If the temperature is above 70, the furnace will shut off. If your kids are very cold, they might suggest turning up the heat to 80 degrees, thinking they will warm up faster. However, most children don’t understand that this is not how a thermostat works. If you set your thermostat to 80, the house will not heat up faster. The furnace will not shut off until the temperature has reached 80. Children seem to groan when you tell them the fastest way to warm up is to put on warmer clothes. This same sigh of resentment and expected eye roll will happen when you explain that eating more won’t make hunger go away faster. In fact, overfilling their stomachs will be uncomfortable and they are just exchanging the pain of hunger with the pain of being too full!
Frequency of Eating
Eating fiber can also help change your energy by helping you feel full longer. This means that eating a fiber-rich diet might decrease your sense of hunger between meals. If you are busy and don’t have time for a snack, choosing a fiber-rich meal can help you feel full longer, allowing a greater amount of time between meals or snacks. The same is true if you are selecting a small snack. You may find a fiber-rich choice will fill you up more than a similar, lower-calorie option.
Bringing Mindfulness Into Your Selections
Mindful eating is about noticing and observing your direct experience before, during and after eating. Pause and “check in” to notice how you feel before eating a fiber-rich food. Notice how your hunger level changes when you eat a higher-fiber food, like an apple. Many people find that because eating an apple takes longer to eat and chew, they feel fuller than if they eat a few crackers or drink some juice. Next, notice how your energy level has changed now that you are not hungry. Ask questions, such as “Do I have the needed energy to complete my next task?” After an hour, pause and notice if your energy level has shifted. Again, consider, “Do I have the needed energy to complete my next task?” Would your energy level have been more consistent if you had chosen more fiber-rich foods?
It is important to remember that even though fiber is a carbohydrate, it does not provide the body with energy. Fiber helps slow the digestion of carbohydrates, which can stabilize the rise and fall of blood sugar, effectively reducing the swing of our imaginary pendulum. Foods with 3 or more grams of fiber per serving are considered a high-fiber choice. The dietary guidelines encourage Americans to eat a fiber-rich diet. In table 1, you can see how much fiber is recommended for you and your family. There is no magic amount of fiber to choose when selecting a food. I do recommend spacing your fiber intake throughout the day. Eating a fiber-heavy meal (>20 grams) may result in feeling bloated. Play with eating a little bit more fiber at each meal. This could be achieved by switching from a lower-fiber bread or cereal to a higher-fiber product. Adding whole fruit, whole grain breads, 100 percent whole grain crackers and fiber-enriched yogurt to midday snacks can also boost your fiber intake. Many families find that these foods are naturally satisfying and delicious.
Please sign up for Mindful Eating for Kids newsletter!