Too much or too little?
The modern diet (aka. the Western Diet) followed by most people in the developed world is characterized by excess amounts of fat, sugar, carbohydrates, and salt. Substantial correlations have been made between the Western Diet and many increasingly prevalent health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes. Consequently, reducing fat, sugar, and salt in the diet is often front-line health advice, which puts those struggling with health risks in an uncomfortable position of having to change their lifestyle to regain their health.
Changes to lifestyle and diet are notoriously difficult to adhere to. These two factors are highly personal and exist because they provide enjoyment to people’s lives. In addition to changing one’s routine, lifestyle or dietary adjustments usually come at the expense of pleasure. This explains the morose tone that accompanies the statement “I’m going on a diet”.
While lowering fat, carbohydrate, and salt levels in one’s diet clearly have benefits, this health advice incompletely captures the deficiencies of the Western Diet because dietary fiber consumption is unacceptably low. Historically, low fiber was associated with constipation and high fiber diets were viewed as the remedy to this ailment. But emerging research on the gut microbiome, the symbiotic ecosystem of bacteria, yeast, and viruses living in our intestines, suggests that consumption of a special type of dietary fiber called prebiotics have influences not only on bowel habits, but on many aspects of our physiology.
Overabundance in the diet is difficult to correct but dietary supplements make deficiencies remarkably easy to address. Take for example folic acid, which has been added to fortified foods like flour and cereal since 1998 in the United States and Canada, leading to significant reductions in neural tube defects.
While it’s unlikely that fiber supplements will reverse all the ills associated with the Western Diet, supplementation of prebiotic dietary fiber certainly fills a widely acknowledged macronutrient void. Prebiotic supplements enjoy a broad safety margin and are very easy to incorporate into a daily routine without having to make drastic dietary changes or increase physical activity. In fact, many supplements can be added to deserts, blunting the guilt and enhancing the enjoyment associated with these treats.
Perhaps the general advice meant to curb the dangers of the Western Diet will one day include a statement like “Get more physical activity, eat less junk, AND increase your dietary fiber intake”. Health practitioners may find that the easy incorporation of dietary fiber supplementation will lead to higher compliance and better overall results than existing recommendations.