Inulin: the Magic Fiber
The abundance of fast food and heavily processed foods in our diet, plus our proclivity to eat on the go have made digestion issues incredibly common. We complain of flatulence, pain, and constipation; we are bombarded with advertisements of probiotics, dairy products with bifido- and lactobacteria, and food supplements. But what if a simple but very special fiber could help our digestion woes?
Inulin, in spite of its slightly threatening name, is just a type of fiber. Dietary fibers are carbohydrates that cannot be digested by our body, and they come in three broad types: those that can be dissolved in water, those that cannot, and so-called resistant starches.
Inulin is a soluble fiber: once you eat it, it forms a gel-like substance in your gut, through which it passes without being absorbed. Now, we’ve all heard that one must eat fiber to help digestion, but why?
- First of all, fiber is necessary for healthy gut macrobiota – our intestines contain about the same number of bacteria as the total number of cells in our body! Most of them are healthy bacteria, essential for metabolism; but stress, antibiotics, and unhealthy diet can cause an increase in the population of harmful bacteria that cause inflammation and bowel infections. Soluble fibers like inulin provide a great source of nutrition to the ‘good’ gut flora, thus preventing inflammation and dysbacteriosis.
- Second, the consumption of inulin can prevent constipation: the gelatinous substance formed by inulin lubricates the inside of the gut, allowing the rest of the food to pass easily and preventing hemorrhoids (here is a recent study.)
- Third, inulin fills the gut and creates a sensation of fullness, thus reducing the desire to eat more. It slows digestion, allowing your body to absorb more nutrients from food. Inulin’s ability to curb appetite safely means that it can be used as a weight control measure (more details here.)
Another benefit is that inulin, while passing through the gut unabsorbed, catches and carries away with it molecules of cholesterol, toxic compounds, and other waste. This means that it can lower the risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
Chicory, Garlic, and Bananas
Most commercial inulin supplements are derived from chicory root, commonly used to make a coffee-like drink (popular in times of economic hardship). Among common foods containing high amounts of inulin are artichokes, endives and radicchio salad (which are themselves kinds of chicory), onions and leeks, garlic, and bananas. Now, most of us do consume some or many of these foods on a regular basis, but you may find it hard to eat the amount of bananas and onions necessary to satisfy your body’s need for inulin. An average adult consumes around 10 grams of fiber per day, while dieticians recommend 20-30 grams. A solution could be taking inulin supplements, but you can also grow your own!
Chicory root is easily grown from seeds (just make sure to buy those of the ‘coffee’ variety), and forms adult-sized roots 4 months after sprouting. In its second year, it blooms with pleasant blue flowers, which produce hundreds of small seeds. Chicory root keeps well, and you can either dry it to make flour (or that coffee-like drink) or ground it into a paste to add to all your recipes, partly replacing flour – it has a mild and pleasant, slightly sweet taste. And it has no side effects or counterindications!