Where Did The Fiber Go? Why Our Hunter-Gather Ancestors Ate More Fiber Than We Do
What Is Fiber?
Fiber, or fibre, as it may otherwise be known, are plant-based carbohydrates that the human body cannot digest. Typically, when carbohydrates are consumed, the body breaks them down into sugar molecules via digestive enzymes. Still, fiber is an example of a carbohydrate that the body can’t break down into sugar, and thus fiber passes through the body undigested. Does that mean that the body gets nothing from the consumption of fiber? No! Fiber can be tremendously beneficial to one’s health, despite sounding like it simply goes through the body undigested and without leaving a mark.
Why Is Fiber Important?
Although fiber cannot be broken down into sugar, one might assume that fiber plays no role in the body's sugar regulation. However, fiber can profoundly affect blood sugar levels and general appetite, and daily consumption of fiber decreases the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and constipation.
Soluble vs Insoluble Fiber
How does fiber help reduce the risk of these conditions? It does so in multiple ways, depending on the type of fiber one consumes. Dietary fiber can be broken down into two categories defined by whether or not the fiber considered dissolves in water. This is referred to as fiber’s solubility. Put simply, if a fiber dissolves in water, it is called soluble fiber. Some examples of soluble fiber are nuts, lentils, apples, and blueberries. These soluble fibers help combat diabetes and heart disease, as they can lower glucose and blood cholesterol levels in the body.
The other type of fiber which does not dissolve in water is called… you guessed it, insoluble fiber. Examples of insoluble fiber include grains such as wheat and brown rice, some fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and carrots, and aid in digestion which lowers the frequency and risks of digestive problems such as constipation.
The Fiber Gap
After hearing some of these examples of soluble and insoluble fibers, you might be thinking, “Hey, I like all of those things, so I must be eating plenty of fiber in my normal diet.” Unfortunately, that is likely not the case, as the vast majority of people do not consume enough fiber. For a healthy lifestyle, doctors recommend that children and adults should consume somewhere between twenty and thirty grams of fiber per day, while most people only eat about half of that amount.
Hunter-Gatherers and Fiber
To examine why our modern diets don’t provide us with another fiber, it’s helpful to dive back into the past, particularly to the Paleolithic age of hunter-gatherer civilizations. Humans consumed quite a bit more fiber during this period, as a much more significant percentage of our diets were composed of grains, fruits, and vegetables.1 Experts estimate that humans in the Paleolithic era ate around one hundred to one hundred and fifty grams of fiber per day, which is nearly ten times the amount that we consume today!2
Our modern gut health and diversity of microbiomes have suffered proportionally because we consume so much less fiber today than our ancient ancestors did. Interestingly, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the lack of fiber in our modern diet has dramatically reduced the number and diversity of intestinal microbiomes that help us digest and break down many foods, remarkably, even more fiber! Pretty crazy, huh?
By eating a significantly less amount of fiber today, we are, in fact, doubly limiting our ability to benefit from the magic of dietary fiber, as we are becoming less and less effective at breaking down and reaping the benefits of the fiber itself.2
Where Did Fiber Go?
Birth of Agriculture
The birth of agriculture, which we can all agree has been mostly a pretty fantastic thing, has had a few drawbacks when analyzed from the consumption of dietary fiber. While this didn’t necessarily have to be the case, as the adoption of enhanced agricultural practices could have led to an even greater intake and diversity of fiber in our diets, this, unfortunately, did not occur due to the practicalities and convenience of farming. As agricultural techniques and technology have advanced, humans have gained the increased ability to sow and harvest their chosen crops. While rising yields and available food sources, humans have limited the diversity of foods in our diet and thus reduced our fiber intake.
The hunter-gatherers living in Tanzania, namely the Hadza people, have a diet similar to our ancestors who lived before the arrival of agriculture. This tribe eats meat from hunted animals as well as berries, seeds, honey and tubers. Researchers believe that they consume a whopping 100 to 150 grams of fiber per day. Sadly, the average American gets only 10-15 grams of dietary fiber per day, which is less than one-third of the World Health Organization Recommended Daily Allowance.4
In much the same way that technology has led to a more uniform and homogenized culture, so too has it resulted in a more homogenous diet for the majority of the human species. As the industrial revolution brought about advancements in the scale and ease of agricultural practices and animal husbandry, the importance of a diverse and nutrient-rich diet became a secondary concern when compared with availability, affordability, and the sheer amount of food required for an exploding global population.3
Modern Day Technology & Food
As modern technology has continued to advance and any food we desire has become available with just a few clicks, we as consumers have unfortunately gotten further and further from our food sources and the knowledge of the importance of a fiber-rich and diverse diet. Though trends are starting to shift, our modern diets are still plagued by an overabundance of meat and sugar, both of which are poor sources of fiber and lead to increases in blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
OLIPOP and Fiber
Why all this emphasis on fiber from a soda brand? OLIPOP is committed to leading soda standards away from an excess of sugar and instead prioritizing digestive health, diverse gut microbiota, and an increase in dietary fiber with every sip. Every can of OLIPOP is rich with soluble fiber from various sources such as Chicory Root, Jerusalem Artichoke, and Cassava Fiber. All this comes without sacrificing our goal of delivering a delicious product in a wide range of flavor options.
While all this talk of agricultural and food technology may sound doom and gloom when it relates to a healthy fiber intake, this is not the case, as technology can serve whatever purpose we wish it to. Through increased knowledge and study, we can change our dietary landscape faster than ever before and bring about a revolution in digestive health. Its cornerstone is an increased intake of fiber. Here’s to the future of fiber and healthier guts for humans worldwide!
- What can hunter-gatherers teach us about staying healthy? (n.d.). Duke Global Health Institute. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://globalhealth.duke.edu/news/what-can-hunter-gatherers-teach-us-about-staying-healthy
- Sonnenburg, J., & Sonnenburg, E. (2016). The good gut: Taking control of your weight, your mood, and your long-term health. Penguin Books.
- Quagliani, D., & Felt-Gunderson, P. (2016). Closing America’s fiber intake gap: Communication strategies from a food and fiber summit. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 11(1), 80–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827615588079
- John F. Cryan et al., “The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis,” Physiological Reviews 99, no. 4 (October 1, 2019): 1877–2013, https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00018.2018.
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