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Are We Entering The Fiber Supplement Renaissance? The Old School Health Hack Is Making A Comeback

  • 8 min read

And just in time, too, since two in three American adults now experience recurring digestive issues.

BY AMY WILKINSON 

When you hear the words “fiber powder” what springs to mind? Is it an orange-colored carton perched on your grandmother’s kitchen counter? Or a TV commercial featuring a disembodied hand stirring a chalky substance into a glass of water? Or maybe it’s simply a hushed voice whispering “constipation.”

It’s safe to say no one has ever accused fiber powder of having a sexy reputation.

Indeed, while stars like Jennifer Aniston and Venus Williams hawk their favorite protein powders, few celebrity endorsers are lining up to promote supplements that help them poop. But maybe they should be—and maybe they will be soon.

Thanks to a confluence of cultural forces—including the rise of plant-based diets and trendy fiber supps (like psyllium husk, which has been loosely linked to weight loss) and the de-stigmatization of gut issues thanks to social media (hello, #HotGirlsHaveIBS)—there’s new interest in and awareness of the fiber powder industry.

This resurgence is coming just in time, as two-thirds of American adults now experience recurring digestive issues, according to a poll released this year. And for certain conditions, women seem to be especially prone: The rate of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is nearly twice as high in female patients as it is in male patients, another study found. There's also an alarming increase in colon cancer rates among those under the age of 55 (from 11% in 1995 to 20% in 2019).

"Anecdotally, I can say my younger patients are most concerned with the uptick in early onset colon cancers (the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman may have been the trigger), and the obesity epidemic, which is affecting all age groups," says Dr. Cynthia Quainoo, MD, a gastroenterologist/hepatologist.

It probably comes as little surprise, then, that most of us aren’t getting enough fiber, which helps keep us regular (i.e. clearing waste from the digestive tract) while also maintaining a healthy gut biome. Women should aim to consume 25 grams of fiber per day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, yet the average American consumes only 10 to 15 grams per day.

FYI: Fiber plays a key role in your body.

Quick refresher: Fiber is a category of carbohydrate that the body can’t fully digest. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber breaks down in water, creating a gel-like substance in the digestive tract that helps push waste through. Insoluble fiber does not break down in water and softens and bulks stools, making them easier to pass. People need both types of fiber in their diets to reap all the digestive benefits, say experts.

“Fiber adds bulk to your stool making it easier to pass through our tube called the digestive tract,” says Dr. Samantha Nazareth, MD, FACG, a Women’s Health advisory board member who is double board-certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology. “It helps prevent constipation and lowers your risk of developing hemorrhoids and diverticulosis (small pouches in your colon that can become inflamed and painful).”

If you were to dive further into the digestive tract and journey, Magic School Bus-style, into the colon (large intestine), you’d see that fiber plays an integral role in digestion long before the elimination process by nourishing our gut bacteria.

“Fiber feeds the healthy microbiome in our colon,” Dr. Nazareth says. “Our microbiome isn’t just an innocent bystander, it helps many aspects of our health, including brain function, immunity, weight, and blood sugar control.”

Fiber has also been linked to reductions in death by heart attack and stroke.

While Dr. Nazareth encourages folks to meet their dietary intakes through whole foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, beans, and whole grains, she adds that when that’s not possible, fiber supplementation is a good option.

“When I have frequent travel and my food choices are outside of my control, I supplement with fiber,” says Dr. Nazareth, who mixes psyllium husk with water to meet her nutritional goals.

Other physicians, like Dr. Quainoo, are even more pragmatic in their advice to patients.

"An apple or bowl of oatmeal has only 4 grams of fiber each. Since no one has time to eat 8 apples in a day, I introduce the idea of supplementation," she says. "Take 15 grams from your diet and the other 15 grams from a supplement."

Fiber sources are actually pretty ubiquitous.

When it comes to fiber powder supplements, there are a handful of “usual suspect” sources derived from plants. The one you’ve likely heard popping up on the news is one called psyllium husk, which has been dubbed a potential "alternative" to the diabetes/weight loss drug Ozempic. (Long story short, those comparisons are overblown, though fiber does promote satiety.)

Psyllium husk is derived from the seeds of the Plantago ovata plant, according to Dr. Nazareth, and is a soluble fiber that can help with constipation. (For context, it’s the primary ingredient in the fiber powder, Metamucil.) “If you mix it in water, it forms a gel-like substance as it absorbs water,” says Dr. Nazareth. That substance is what helps push material through the digestive tract.

Another popular fiber source is potato starch. Yes, the humble spud. “It doesn’t digest in the small intestine and reaches the colon intact as food for the beneficial gut bacteria,” Dr. Nazareth says. Next, there’s guar gum, which comes from the seed of the cluster bean (Cyamopsis tetragonoloba) plant and pectin, a soluble fiber which is found in plants. You might also see “inulin” while reading labels, which is another soluble fiber found in plants like chicory root, Dr. Nazareth says. Inulin can also be used as a prebiotic fiber to support gut health.

While Dr. Nazareth says that daily fiber powder supplements are safe, you should start with a slightly lower-than-recommended dose and gradually increase your dosage over time to avoid digestive issues. Be sure to check the label for ingredients you don’t want, like added sugar, and if you’re on any medications, get your doc’s okay first to prevent any possible adverse interactions.

Also, be mindful that supplementation is not a one-size-fits-all thing, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with a specific GI condition, like IBS. “IBS is complex—what works for one person may not work for another,” Dr. Nazareth says.

More and more women are turning to fiber powder.

Whether hoping for regular bowel movements or troubleshooting more serious chronic gut troubles, individuals have started incorporating the supp into their daily diet.

Women’s Health Lifestyle Director Lindsay Gellar, 30, has been supplementing with psyllium husk since 2019, with the main goal of keeping things moving when she’s stressed or traveling.

“I take it pretty much every day—either by throwing a teaspoon into my breakfast smoothie or mixing a teaspoon in with some yogurt, peanut butter, and protein powder,” Gellar says. “The main benefit I experienced was staying regular, and I’ve definitely noticed that when I don’t take it for whatever reason, I miss that extra dose of fiber.”

For Chloe Melas, 37, entertainment correspondent for NBC News, psyllium husk has been a game-changer for her GI issues. At 23, Melas was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), an inflammatory bowel disease affecting the lining of the large intestine. For the first decade or so after her diagnosis, Melas leaned into pharmaceutical medications–including steroids and immunosuppressant drugs–with varying outcomes.

“I was put on steroids for several months and developed ‘moon face’ [swelling] from it because there are all different types of side effects,” says Melas, who is speaking publicly about her diagnosis for the first time to Women’s Health. “My body was sensitive to the touch. You couldn't even give me a hug without me feeling like my whole body hurt.”

In 2014, Melas married Brian Mazza, an entrepreneur and fitness influencer, who she says is constantly introducing her to the latest innovations in the wellness space. In 2020, he brought home a big bag of psyllium husk from their local nutrition store, and she started mixing it into water along with other vitamins and supplements, essentially mad-sciencing her own fiber water.

“I noticed an immediate benefit to my regularity and bloating,” Melas says. “I did a lot of research [on the benefits] and became a religious user of psyllium husk.” That, coupled with the right mix of traditional medicines, has helped Melas relieve her symptoms.

While her doctors support Melas’ use of psyllium husk, they are loath to say it “cured” her ulcerative colitis (there’s no known cure for the condition, according to the Mayo Clinic). That said, Melas has been in remission for two years now and recently had her first normal colonoscopy ever.

“It's been a really, really, really long journey—14 years,” Melas says of her diagnosis and treatment. “That's scary to think that it's been that long. I thought that this was something that was going to go away in just a few months. I wish I had known about the importance of fiber sooner.”

Fiber is for all ages, and companies are starting to bridge the gap.

Inspired by her friend Melas’ experience and her own issues with IBS and lactose intolerance, Shannon Race used her know-how and experience as a vet of Vital Proteins to co-found Bio.me, a gut health company hoping to revolutionize the fiber powder market.

The company launched in September of this year. (Melas’s husband, Mazza, is a partner.) The company currently has two powders on the market: Daily Prebiotic Fiber, with partially hydrolyzed guar gum and resistant potato starch; and Fiber Rescue, with psyllium husk. It also has a Synbiotic, which comes in pill form.

“I felt like there was an opportunity, first and foremost, for something that was really easy to incorporate in your daily routine—it’s not just a product but part of your lifestyle,” Race says of the whitespace she intends to fill in the fiber powder market. “The brands that do exist that have unflavored products that can be added to juice, water, whatever, they still felt very kind of pharma, prescriptive, sterile—not approachable or for the modern consumer.”

Race wanted a product chic enough to fit in a young woman’s kitchen, but not so young-feeling as to dissuade an older demographic.

To strike that Goldilocks balance, her team focused on the packaging. Eschewing a gimmicky aesthetic that might undercut the science and research that went into developing Bio.me, the team opted for sleek, monochromatic pouches that feel sophisticated in their simplicity.

Race hopes this packaging approach, coupled with Bio.me’s efforts to educate consumers about the importance of gut health, will help shift lingering notions that fiber powder is only for constipated folks over the age of 50.

Of course, Bio.me has competition in the race to make digestive health cool.

Companies like the Instagram-ubiquitous Seed (which sells its own Synbiotic pill) have already staked their claim on a certain corner of social media, working with influencers–and even actor Lana Condor–to reach wellness-minded women in their 20s and 30s.

Bonny, meanwhile, is leaning into the bodily function of it all, with cheeky taglines like “Tastes great, makes you poop” and “Fiber should make you crap, not taste like it.” And then there’s Naked, whose organic fiber is so stripped down that it only contains one ingredient (baobab pulp).

But Race is confident about the lane she’s chosen for Bio.me. “The science is not about the gimmicky weight loss or over-the-top ‘Hot Girls Have IBS’ marketing messaging,” Race says. “It's about the importance of fiber for your overall health, and that's the message that I really want to drive in a way that's still fun.”

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