Fresh produce is one good source of dietary fiber. Gila Brand photo.

Camping is a popular pastime here in Kodiak in the summer. I was amazed at the number of people who were out over the Fourth of July weekend in campers, tents and trailers to enjoy the beauty of our island.

I suspect it is difficult to eat a healthy diet while camping, and most of us do not eat very healthy even when we are not camping. One part of a healthy diet that most Americans are deficient in is fiber. Fiber has been shown to have many health benefits: lowering cholesterol, decreasing blood sugar, aiding in weight loss, and preventing diverticular disease. A high-fiber diet may also protect against heart disease and stroke by lowering blood pressure and insulin levels, and improving cholesterol.

Fiber is indigestible plant material that aids in bulking up stool and retaining water in the colon to produce large, soft stools. People who do not eat a lot of fiber or drink enough water (64 ounces per day) may have problems with constipation, excess gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, or problems with hemorrhoids or diverticulosis. Foods that are high in fiber include vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit, beans, oats and whole grains. The recommended daily intake of fiber is 25-35 grams.

Fiber supplements are a healthy and easy way to increase fiber in the diet. There are many brands and types of supplements:  pills, powders, wafers, gummi bears. I recommend to my patients to find a supplement they can remember to take daily and which does not cause them excess gas. Start with the recommended dose and then increase slowly until stools are regular, large and soft, without straining.

Diets low in fiber can contribute to the formation of diverticulosis. Little outpouchings (diverticuli) of the colon wall occur through areas of weakness where the blood vessels cross through the wall.  Diverticuli can form in the colon from high pressure due to small, hard stools and the greater amount of force it takes to propel the stool through the colon.

Sometimes forming diverticuli is due to genetics, where different races tend to form diverticuli in different parts of the colon (i.e. right vs. left colon). Diverticulosis of the colon is a common problem in Westernized countries, affecting about 60 percent of the population by age 60.

Diverticular disease can cause serious health issues such as infection of the diverticuli (diverticulitis), perforation or bleeding, which can be life-threatening, but the majority of people who have diverticulosis do not have any symptoms.  Diverticular disease is the third-leading cause of hospitalizations for abdominal pain.

There are known factors that increase or decrease our chances of forming diverticulosis or of having symptoms from them. A diet high in fiber and low in fat is known to decrease formation of diverticulosis and can reduce symptoms from diverticulosis once they have already formed. Being obese and not exercising are risk factors to have diverticulosis and to have symptoms from them. Vitamin D deficiency tends to make symptoms from diverticulosis worse.  Smokers tend to have more diverticular abscesses and perforations than non-smokers.

Seeds, nuts, and popcorn have not been shown to increase risk of diverticulosis or diverticulitis, and nuts and popcorn may actually decrease risk of diverticulitis.

Our bodies are complex and amazing, and good health is something we should be very thankful for.  Eating healthy is an important step in improving overall wellbeing, and an easy first step is to add more fiber to your diet and drink more water.

“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:15-16).

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