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We all know how important fiber-rich foods are for weight management, digestive health and regular bowel movements, among other functions. But did you know there’s a type of fiber called inulin that can improve gut, heart and metabolic health as well?
While there are various types of inulin, they all have in common their ability to act like prebiotic fibers. This means they’re not able to be broken down or absorbed once they enter the digestive tract — and it’s this unique attribute that provides so many of inulin’s health benefits.
Because inulin fiber is not digested by enzymes in the human body, it’s fermentable and lower in calories than sugar and other carbohydrates. As it passes through your digestive system it feeds good bacteria in your gut (also known as probiotics), while clearing the body of particles including cholesterol, and making you feel fuller, too.
Inulin is a soluble plant fiber that’s present in high amounts in the chicory root plant, along with an estimated 36,000 other plants! Some foods that contain inulin include whole wheat, onions, bananas, garlic, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes — plants that are sometimes called prebiotic foods.
Is inulin good or bad for you? As you can probably tell by now, it’s definitely good! Dietary fibers like inulin have been used for hundreds of years to improve bowel functions and gut health, curb appetite, and help maintain heart health, all completely naturally.
Technically inulin is a type of fructan, oligofructose carbohydrate. It’s present inside the roots and stems of plants as a means of storing energy and regulating the plant’s internal temperature. It contains about ¼ of the calories of white sugar per gram and has minimal effects on blood glucose levels, making it helpful for diabetics.
It also has osmotically active properties (a benefit to plants because this helps them resist cold temperatures and survive) and a high molecular weight. This gives it the ability to absorb liquid and to have a natural resistance to digestive enzymes produced by humans.
What is inulin good for in terms of supporting human health? Studies show it’s especially valuable because it has important “prebiotic effects.” It allows healthy probiotics that make up the human microbiome to thrive, repopulate and survive. It also clings to cholesterol in the GI tract, which can protect against metabolic syndrome.
How does inulin make you poop? Due to its chemical composition, when inulin is mixed with liquid it forms a creamy gel that’s ideal for relieving constipation. When gelled, it has a structure similar to lipids (fats) that also help lubricate the digestive system and lessen risk for things like hemorrhoids.
Not only do fructans work by increasing faecal biomass and water content of poop, but research shows they also improve bowel habits because of how they positively affect gastrointestinal functions and rapidly ferment in the colon to produce healthy bacteria.
As a non-digestible prebiotic, inulin passes through the large intestines unabsorbed. During this process, it naturally ferments and feeds the healthy intestinal microflora (bacterial organisms, including bifidobacterium) that populate the gut.
By stimulating healthy bacteria to grow, soluble fiber can decrease the number of potentially harmful yeast, parasites and bacterial species living in the body that trigger inflammation. Studies suggest this is why inulin-type fructans have been found to reduce the risk of colon carcinogenesis and improve management of inflammatory bowel diseases.
Even though it’s low in absorbable calories (it provides about 1.5 calories per gram), this type of fiber can help to make you feel less hungry.
Dietitians recommend that people looking to lose weight work on increasing their fiber intake in order to feel more satisfied and to deal with fewer blood sugar fluctuations.
When combined with water, inulin bulks up and forms a gel-like substance that expands in the digestive tract. This may help decrease appetite and cravings — potentially helping with weight loss. It also slows the process of food emptying from the stomach and takes up more volume, both which contribute to satiety after eating.
As it passes through the digestive system unabsorbed by digestive enzymes, inulin takes with it toxins, waste, fat and cholesterol particles. For this reason a high-fiber diet has been tied to heart health.
Research shows that increasing your fiber intake (especially the soluble type) helps lower blood cholesterol, reduces your risk for arteriosclerosis and can help you maintain healthy glucose levels.
There seems to be an inverse association between fiber intake and systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol levels, and triglycerides. Soluble fibers in the diet can help lower LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol by interfering with the absorption of dietary cholesterol.
Another benefit of inulin, according to studies, is the fact that it doesn’t cause insulin to be secreted and won’t raise blood sugar since its carbohydrates/sugars cannot be broken down.
Certain studies have found that increasing your fiber intake may help improve absorption of electrolytes, including calcium and possibly magnesium. How so? It comes down to the beneficial effects of prebiotic inulin within the gut.
A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in high-risk populations for calcium deficiency (especially younger girls and older women), the use of chicory inulin helps increase proper absorption of calcium, which may enhance bone mineralization and protection against disorders like osteoporosis.