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plants, peels, fiber, and gut bugs

Whole Foods

Do you peel lemons before tossing them into your morning smoothie? How about beets, cucumbers, or kiwis?

The peelings provide added nutrition; no reason to toss them out. I’m also a big fan of fiber, so I don’t peel most fruits or veggies. Plus, my personal entourage of microbial critters, the hundreds of thousands of bacterial species (gut flora, AKA microbiome) that call me home, thrive on this diet as well. Yes, my body is a temple, complete with a bazillion little symbiotic worshipers.

At least that’s the idea. We need a healthy, diverse, and thriving microbiome as part of our internal ecology. That helps keep the immune system strong, autoimmunity in check, and may reduce the risk of some forms of cancer, especially those associated with the GI tract. We’re bombarded today with chemicals our grandparents weren’t exposed to. Many of these toxic substances (pro-carcinogens) become genotoxic (mess up our DNA) upon metabolic activation by our gut bacteria.


Our world is toxic. We eat, drink, breath, and expose ourselves to harmful substances on a daily basis, many of which are in our food supply. Research indicates that a large percentage of known carcinogens require enzymatic activity to trigger malignancy. The bacterial composition of the gut microbiome (good bugs vs bad bugs) and the metabolic byproducts from all those critters can either protect us or do us in.

The idea is to encourage the good bugs to flourish. It’s also important to keep things moving along, if you know what I mean. A plant-based, high-fiber diet not only provides nourishment for our friendly bacteria, it also helps fight disease and prevents us from being full of poo.

The role of the gut microbiome is a hot research topic these days, and although the findings are intriguing, they can also be confusing. Or weird, especially when you throw cootie genomics into the mix. It’s not just our DNA floating around in the gene pool, it’s also the genetic elements of our personal collection of microbes. We’re one big complex ecosystem. Hopefully our microbiome is living in harmony with the rest of us. Food choices, pre- and pro-biotics, and how much fiber we consume can shift the bacterial composition to either enhance our well-being or encourage disease. Here are a few details.

Microbiome: the interaction of all the microscopic organisms, including their genomes, in one specific environment.

* In this post, I’m focused on the human gut microbiome. If you’re interested in the skin microbiome and you’re not germaphobic, check out this article on women’s flat track roller derby in which the skin microbiome of individual contestants was analyzed and matched to team membership. Each team had its own specific microbe community. Not only did they have team colors and team mascots, they had team cooties. Very cool. And weird.

Prebiotics: Nondigestible food ingredients (fiber) that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics are food for microbes. Feed your microbes well.

* Gluten-free sources of foods containing prebiotic fiber include Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, asparagus, banana, dandelion greens, onions, leeks, garlic, raw oats (make sure they’re certified gluten-free), chicory root, and yacon. Unrefined wheat and barley are also good sources, but those foods are off limits for those of us with gluten intolerance.

Probiotics: live microbes that provide health benefits to the host (you) by augmenting beneficial intestinal bacteria.

* Probiotics can be found in supplement form. I don’t take supplements, so I try to get my dose of probiotics from fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir.

Fiber: The nonstarch polysaccharides found in plant foods that are not broken down by human digestive enzymes, although some (prebiotics) are digested by GI tract bacteria. Fiber is often categorized as soluble or insoluble.

Insoluble fibers are called “bulking agents.” They help keep us regular (poo-wise). This is the fiber most people refer to when they talk about constipation. It literally sweeps out the GI tract, which is a good thing. Remember the Elvis story?

Soluble fiber helps that process, but it also has therapeutic effects. Soluble fiber delays the absorption of glucose (insulin response), helps us feel full, and decreases cholesterol levels. There’s even research suggesting soluble fiber may help reduce blood pressure and improve the absorption of minerals.

That last part is especially interesting. Some people avoid grains and legumes because of the phytic acid (phytate) content. Phytic acid isn’t classified as fiber, but is common in fiber-rich foods. It’s a non-nutrient, found in the husk of grains, legumes, and seeds. It can bind with certain minerals (zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium) and decrease their absorption.

But — researchers have also demonstrated that rats absorb more calcium, iron, and magnesium when fed a diet rich in soluble fiber, which is found in those same plants. We’re not rats, but these are interesting findings. Another article suggested that when soluble fiber ferments in the colon, it enhances the absorption of minerals. We eat the plants that contain both phytic acid and soluble fiber and what happens? Beats me, I’m not a biochemist, but the type of fiber appears to be important when it comes to mineral absorption. Soluble fiber that promotes intestinal fermentation and an increase in beneficial bacteria has a positive effect on mineral bioavailability. It’s a convoluted puzzle with lots of variables and depending on what you want to prove, you could cherry-pick data from either side to make your case. Having said that, I’m not convinced phytic acid is anything to worry about, especially if your diet is based on whole foods (lots of plants) rich in micronutrients and fiber.

Soluble fiber in the form of prebiotics is the stuff our gut microbes call dinner. The names don’t really matter, but if you’re interested — inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), arabinooligosaccharides (AOS),  and to some degree, pectin, are soluble fibers with prebiotic properties. As mentioned above, they help increase good bacteria at the expense of bad bacteria.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. You’re fascinated by all this, right?

You’ve probably heard of leaky gut (intestinal permeability), especially if you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, Crohn’s disease, IBS, or any other autoimmune or GI related condition. We don’t know all the causes of leaky gut, but one thing is clear. The “Standard American Diet” (processed food, low fiber, high animal product diet) compromises food transit and waste elimination.

In other words, if stuff doesn’t move along at the right speed, you end with a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.

When that happens, it alters nutrient availability to good gut bacteria and stimulates an overgrowth of bad gut bacteria. The bad bugs start partying, produce icky byproducts, and our intestinal cells take a beating. That abnormal balance alters gut permeability and allows funky stuff to slip through the cracks and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Security is breached, alarms go off, and every system in the body becomes a potential target for invaders (antigens). Antigens are substances that invoke an antibody response, but sometimes our antibodies, which are produced to protect us, get confused and target our own tissues (autoimmunity).

Does that sound familiar? Who’s had antibody testing for this or that?

Is this making sense?

Here’s how it all ties together.

See the smoothie ingredients pictured above? They include a mixture of fiber types, along with a rich assortment of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. The American Dietetic Association’s daily recommendation for fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. After age 50, the ADA recommendations drop to 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men.

YIKES, in my opinion, that’s way short of what we should be consuming. I’m over 50 and that smoothie of mine alone contains close to 17 grams of fiber. I’m almost at my daily recommendation before 6 AM. Twenty-one grams is not enough to encourage and support a healthy gut microbiome. Not even close.

Recent archeological findings suggest that at least a few of our hunter-forager ancestors consumed up to 135 grams of prebiotic fiber per day. Whoa, I’d call that high-carb, optimal foraging. Not exactly most modern day versions of the Paleo diet. Although 135 grams of fiber per day is a bit much (don’t try that at home, you’ll explode), American’s are definitely short-changing themselves when it comes to fiber — and overall health.

In a nutshell. Eat more plants.

Prebiotic, plant powered smoothie

* Use organic vegetables and fruit, especially if you’re eating the peels. Scrub the peels well before using (see my little veggie scrubber shown above).
2 cups raw greens (add some dandelion greens)
1 medium pear, seeded and chopped
1 medium celery stalk, chopped
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
2 dates, pitted and chopped
1 lemon (with peel), cut into wedges (pick out the obvious seeds) *
2 tablespoons raw oats, finely ground in a coffee grinder *
4 walnut halves, chopped
2 to 4 cups filtered water

Options: I also use raw beets, jicama, burdock root, broccoli stalks, asparagus, bananas, berries, and whatever else I can think of in my smoothies.

Place all ingredients in a high-powered blender (VitaMix, Blendtec, etc.) and blend until smooth.

Nutrition and health bonus

* Retaining the lemon peel doubles the fiber and significantly increases the vitamin C. The peel also contains a phytochemical called d-limonene, a component of the essential oil in citrus. Studies show this substance is chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic, meaning it helps fight against cancer.

* I always add a source of protein to smoothies. Hemp, chia, various nuts and seeds, or raw oats are favorites of mine. Raw oats provide carbohydrate, but the kind I use are also high in protein, iron, and soluble fiber, which in turn provides prebiotic fuel for beneficial microorganisms like bifidobacteria. If you’re worried about phytic acid, some oats have no hull, lessening the content. At least that’s my assumption, although I couldn’t find any research to back this up. My Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition book defines phytic acid as: a non-nutrient component of plant seeds; also called phytate. Phytic acid occurs in the husks of grains, legumes, and seeds and is capable of binding minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and cooper in insoluble complexes in the intestine, which the body excretes. If phytic acid is found in the husk and there is no husk, it makes sense that there’s less (none?) phytic acid in hull-less oats.

I get my certified gluten-free, high protein, hull-less oats from Montana Gluten-Free Processors or Gluten-Free Prairie.

Some people with celiac disease don’t do well with oats, even gluten-free oats, so ask your healthcare provider if oats are a good choice for you.

For a little background and a list of what good bacteria do for human health, check out this past post of mine (How much of you is really you?). Check this post for some plant magic, (Talking bacteria and disease-fighting veggies).

I signed up for the American Gut Project to determine my gut microbial makeup. It will be interesting to see how those of us with celiac disease compare to the rest of the participants. I’ll keep you posted. If you want to know what you’re made of, check out the open source, community driven effort to characterize the microbial diversity of the American (and global) gut. Let’s compare bugs!

Peace, love and gut checks!


Chadwich RW, George SE, Claxton ID (1992) “Role of the gastrointestinal mucosa and microflora in the bioactivation of dietary and environmental mutagens or carinogens.” Drug Metabolism Reviews. Vol 24, Issue 4, 425-492.

Crowell P. (1999) “Prevention and Therapy of Cancer by Dietary Monoterpenes.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 129, No 3, 775-778.

Jenkins et al. (1999) “Nutritional and Health Benefits of Inulin and Oligofructose: Inulin, Oligofructose and Intestinal Function.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 129, No 7, 1431-1433.

Kolida S, Gibson G (2007) “Prebiotic Capacity of Inulin-Type Fructans.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 137, No 11, 250-256.

Leach JD, Sobolik KD. (2010) “High dietary intake of prebiotic-type fructans in the prehistoric Chihuahuan Desert.” British Journal of Nutrition. 103(11):1558-61.

Lopez HW, et al. (1998) “Intestinal Fermentation Lessens the Inhibitory Effects of Phytic Acid on Mineral Absorption in Rats.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 128, No 7, 1192-1198.

Meadow JF, et al. (2013) “Significant changes in the skin microbiome mediated by the sport of roller derby.” Peer J 1:e53.

Vigsnaes LK, et al. (2011) “In Vitro Fermentation of Sugar Beet Arabinooligosaccharides by Fecal Microbiota Obtained from Patients with Ulcerative Colitis to Selectively Stimulate the Growth of Bifidobacterium spp. and Lactobacillus spp. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Vol 77, No 23, 8336-8344.

Whitney EN, Cataldo CB, Rolfes SR. Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. Belmont, CA. 2002.

Wong et al. (2007) “Carbohydrate digestibility and metabolic effects.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol. 137, no. 11, 2539-2546.

(for girls only) nutrition for women

Last month I did a blog post on super foods for men. I also threw in some basic (and not so basic) differences in male and female brain function. This time I’ll focus on us girls.

Is there a better place to start than hormones and chocolate? Maybe fashion, hats, and shiny things. I’ll see if I can weave them all together, but the launching pad has to be hormones. A brain sloshing around in a pool of estrogen looks and behaves quite different from a brain infused with testosterone. I touched on a few cognitive gender differences in my last post, but since I find this so fascinating, I think I’ll keep this neuro-thread going.

I’m a research nerd and guess what I’ve discovered after logging zillions of hours reading scientific papers (plus, years of field study)?

Men really are from Mars.

Before you jump to the conclusion that I might be gender-biased in my observations, I’ve also discovered that women are from BabbleOn. See – if I was going to fudge my findings, I’d pick something far more flattering.

Here’s the deal. Women do better than men on tasks that require verbal communication and memory of personal experiences. Men excel in the manipulation of complex spatial information.

What does that mean?

Women talk a lot and remember everything. Men can park 2 cars, 1 motorcycle, 3 mountain bikes, a fishing boat, a side-winder circular saw, 6 pairs of skis and 300 pounds of camping gear in a 2 car garage.

Like I said before, we’re different.

Back to the hormone part. Scientifically speaking, aside from all the other stuff estrogen does, it also provides females with the ability to outperform males in associating stimuli across time. It even shows up in more adult-generated neurons in our hippocampus.

What’s a hippocampus, you ask?

It’s a little doo-hickey in the brain that just so happens to be a long-term memory consolidation station and an emotional storage bin. It’s like a jewelry box for stuff you can dig up and throw into a heated conversation years later.

So think about that one for a minute.

Estrogen, emotions, new neurons, and memory storage? It’s no wonder we never forget things men do (or, don’t do). Sorry, but I have to take this one step further (female trait, babbling on). Gender differences in memory and learning are facilitated by differences in hormones and brain anatomy. But it doesn’t stop there. That also gives us the ability to further change our brain anatomy by forming new neurons. The actual structure of the brain changes allowing us to remember more stuff you guys did for longer periods of time.

Like f o r e v e r.

Oh my gosh, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Although I took a rather convoluted, gender-driven journey to get here, I want to stress the importance of balancing blood sugar (glucose) and hormones when it comes to women’s health. Those two things form the foundation for radiant energy, stable emotions, and better stuff in your jewelry box – both pleasant memories and shiny things.

To function optimally, the body must maintain blood sugar levels within the proper ranges. Extreme fluctuations cause roller-coaster hormones, which can lead to hissy fits, dish tossing, and crying jags. It also leads to all kinds of health problems down the road. We can avoid the drama by keeping glucose and hormones in balance. That starts with nutrition and exercise. Yoga is my preferred form of movement-induced, hormone balancing (pun intended). Here are my food favorites.

Melissa’s top 10 super-foods for women (in no particular order)

1. Cinnamon
Cinnamon has a long history as a functional food. Not only does this sweet spice smell and taste wonderful, it also helps control blood sugar and makes you feel full longer. It’s anti-microbial, helps fight candida and is a good source of fiber, calcium and iron. I add about a teaspoon of cinnamon to all my smoothies. I also sprinkle it over yogurt, add it to homemade granola, power bars and whatever else I can think of. I try to eat at least a teaspoon of cinnamon a day.

2. Broccoli
According to cancer researchers at the University of Michigan, a natural compound in broccoli inhibits breast cancer stem cells and helps block their self-renewal pathway. There are all kinds of studies regarding cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy and similar green leafy vegetables) and their positive role in cancer prevention. Good stuff!

3. Fiber
Although not a food per se, fiber is so important for blood sugar balance, weight loss, and overall health. I’m a huge fan and eat way more than the recommended amount. For a detailed post I did on fiber several years ago, check here. You’ll find all the information you need to boost your fiber intake. Make sure you do it slowly and drink lots of water.

4. Avocados
Avocados are high in fat, but it’s a healthy fat and worth adding to your arsenal of super foods. Plus, if you add avocado to a big green salad or a fresh salsa mix, you greatly increase the absorption of the other nutrients. Carotenoids (in tomatoes, peppers, carrots, greens, etc.) are fat-soluble nutrients that need to tag along with high-grade fat to be adequately absorbed and assimilated. Avocados are also a low-carb, high-fiber food source, which is great for balancing blood sugar and hormones (once again, so important).

5. Coconut
Another high fat food, but again, this is good stuff, so don’t be fat-aphobic. The key is to be very picky about your fats. Please check here for a detailed post I wrote a couple of years ago on the health benefits of coconut. I love the stuff! Eat it, cook with it, put it on your skin, slather it on your hair.

6. Dark chocolate and red wine
Hey, what can I say? Girls are programmed to lust after chocolate. Resveratrol, a substance in cacao and red wine, is the “it” supplement right now. But, in most cases, I believe we’re better off eating the whole food rather than taking supplements. Treat yourself on occasion (moderation, moderation) and eat a small chunk of high-grade dark chocolate. You might even pair it with 4 ounces of a nice Pinot Noir.
Past resveratrol posts: dark chocolate as health food, enlightened hot chocolate, carnival of love (red wine)

7. Beets and berries
Those of you who have following this blog for the past 4 years know I’m passionate about beets. Ridiculously so. I’ve been a beet girl my entire life. My mom says I ate them as a baby and grew up thinking they were dessert. I was lucky. I had a mom who fed me beets, spinach, and broccoli during the explosion of processed foods. I can’t remember ever having a Twinkie, sugary cereal, or Hamburger Helper. We ate real food, made from scratch. There are so many studies linking the nutrients in beets to good health that I won’t even try to list them all. Just trust me, they’re amazing. I have a lot of beet blog posts in my archives, but since summer is around the corner, here’s an ice cream recipe.

8. Apples
Apples are high in fiber, help balance blood sugar in several different ways (they’re magic), are anti-inflammatory, high in antioxidants, support healthy gut bacteria and are packed with goodness. Studies show positive results with age-related health problems as well (macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, etc.). I’m taking this “apple a day” thing seriously. Apples are sprayed with some seriously nasty stuff, so choose organic.

9. Swiss chard and leafy greens
Greens are true super foods. All greens are great sources of beneficial plant nutrients, but I’ll focus on Swiss chard since I’m on my “balance your blood sugar” rant. There’s a substance in chard (syringic acid if you must know) that has warrior princess power when it comes to blood sugar regulation. Chard (like beets) also contains a group of phytochemicals called betalains, which are high in antioxidants, are anti-inflammatory and promote detoxification.

10. Chick peas
How could I not include chick peas?  Lucky for us, these little nutrient-dense namesakes help regulate blood sugar and are packed with fiber. I know, this blood sugar/fiber thing is getting tiresome, but it’s so important for long-term health, artful aging and hormone balance. Chick peas are also super high in the mineral manganese, which is an antioxidant involved with energy production. Who doesn’t want more energy? Check here for one of my favorite roasted chick pea recipes from Shirley at GFE.

Just as important is what you don’t eat. Avoid processed foods, refined sugar, soda pop, too much caffeine or alcohol, and junk food. Stick to whole foods with an emphasis on veggies and fruit.

Peace, love, and real food!
Image of Robert Lewis Reid painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


watermelon chia seed smoothie


I’d like to say it’s a lazy, hot summer day in Golden, Colorado, perfect for ripe, juicy seasonal watermelon. But no, it’s cold, windy and the low last night was 28 degrees. Not exactly picnic weather. More like hot chocolate, flannel jammies and furry slippers weather. 

But, when you eat local and seasonal food, you go with the plant flow and it’s watermelon time, so put on a down parka and dig in!

I have been eating watermelon daily for the past three weeks. I’m really not complaining as you all know how much I love my weekly CSA share from Grant Family Farms. Yes, I’ll admit it – I love my farmers up the road in Wellington. Head over heels, stalkingly in love. But in a good veggie-fruit kind of way. Yes, Andy Grant is my version of Sting, a total rock star. Or rather a dirt star. 

This smoothie was created using fruits and veggies from my recent share box. Mix and match according to what you have on hand, but this made for a perfect breakfast shake. While sitting by the fire, wrapped in a wool blankie, wearing mittens. Hey, nobody promised that eating seasonal in Colorado would always make sense. 

watermelon chia seed smoothie (this is a winner)
2 cups watermelon chunks, seeds removed
2 cups mixed lettuce greens (the good stuff, not iceberg lettuce)
1 small apple, unpeeled and chopped
1/2 cup diced cucumber
1/2 cup Redwood Hill Farms vanilla goat yogurt
1/2 to 1 scoop Chia Seeds (this is what I use
1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Place all ingredients in the blender and mix well. If your watermelon is juicy enough, you’ll have a perfect smoothie without adding any liquid. This was absolutely delicious and something even picky kids will love (or you green-food-avoiding grownups – you know who you are). The green, leafy stuff is practically unnoticeable. 

Chia (chee-ah) is an edible seed from a desert plant that is a member of the mint family. Like quinoa was to the Inca Indians, chia was warrior food for the Aztecs and Mayans.

Total Zena, Warrior Princess food. 

Chia is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, niacin, zinc and blah, blah, blah. These little nutty-tasting seeds truly are power-packed. The high fiber content makes them perfect for slowing down the process by which carbs are converted to sugar, so energy levels are more balanced. Chia is great mixed into trail bars, granola, muffins and hot cereal. 

Go forth and thrive!
Zena, Warrior Princess

grapefruit pectin to the rescue


If it’s not pharmaceutical drugs being advertised on TV, it’s natural supplements being pushed in health magazines. If you want to feel old and rundown, watch Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune and take note of the advertising. Everything from cholesterol lowering drugs to denture paste to laxatives to viagra. It’s not much better in the magazine world. Unfortunately, that says something about our general state of health in this country.

“A rich source of fiber,” grapefruit pectin “may help maintain cholesterol levels already in the normal range.” All that for only $31.98 a bottle. Hmmm? Let me get this straight. You can keep your “already normal” cholesterol levels “normal” by taking grapefruit pectin supplements.

Here’s an idea. How about we skip the supplements and eat real grapefruit?

I’ll admit, I’ve fallen for some less-than-good-for-me health food claims in the past (of all things, wheat germ) and I do take a few supplements from time to time, but my gosh, we’re getting bombarded with over-the-top health claims these days. What’s true and what isn’t?

The US Food and Drug Administration recently put the smack down on General Mills for claiming that Cheerios have been “clinically proven to lower cholesterol.” Oops, the FDA says those words classify Cheerios as a drug since the intent is to prevent or treat disease and as such, they need to go through the “approved new drug application” process.

If you can’t believe in Cheerios to lower cholesterol, can you believe in grapefruit pectin? Maybe, maybe not. I believe in the healing and medicinal properties of whole foods, but I’m not buying into advertising claims applied to food that comes in a box.

I’m also not buying into the pectin supplement claims, but I am a huge fan of fiber and just in case the pectin can work some magic somewhere in my body, I leave as much of it on my citrus fruit as possible. See above for pectin-saving peel photo. I use a small paring knife and keep as much of the fibrous membrane on as possible.

Grapefruit salad
3 cups mixed greens
1 grapefruit, peeled (minimally), seeded and sectioned
1 avocado, sliced
1/2 cup pecans *
crumbled goat cheese

All purpose salad dressing (this is my default salad dressing)
2 tablespoons Annie’s Naturals organic Dijon Mustard
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey (or less if you don’t like sweet dressings)
Start with the mustard and place all ingredients in a small jar. Shake vigorously. If you start with the mustard, it won’t separate. Use as needed for any salad.

Assemble salad, sprinkle with pecans and goat cheese, drizzle with dressing and enjoy.

* I like toasting my pecans in a dry skillet on medium/low for 3 to 5 minutes to bring out the flavor.

Go forth and eat whole foods, pectin and all.

Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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