Fiber seems to have made its way to the forefront of dietary importance beyond nearly every other nutritional diatribe available. Not feeling regular? Have some fiber. Not able to get all the dates you want? More fiber. Not rich and famous yet? Clearly, lack of fiber in your diet is the problem. While fiber is important, few know how important it is, or the process by which your body effectively uses it. In fact, it is possible to have too much fiber in your diet, and this slightly inconvenient truth may be a bigger problem for some than the lack-there-of.

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest, but it certainly can break down into useful parts. Fiber is attacked by bacteria that live in the colon, breaking it down into acids and gases through the process of fermentation. Dietary fiber is only partially fermented, because certain plant cells are able to resist bacterial attacks. The acids produced by this process of fermentation are absorbed by the body for the most part, and nourish the lining of the colon. This also provides some fuel for organ function, particularly the liver, which has important consequences for metabolism because half of the calories in fiber are made available to the body.

The gases that are created soften and enlarge stools as they wind down your intestines and bowels. Of course, sometimes these gases are not absorbed, which may result in some “flatus” (farting) and can contribute to bloated feelings. Vegans and vegetarians will know within a few days whether this is the case for them, but rather than give up on the dietary change, use of an anti-gas agent will help tremendously. Foods that contain fiber are typically low in fat, and some U.S. Department of Agriculture research has indicated that fiber intake may block digestion of some fat and calories, which adds up to several pounds lost over the course of a year.

Since fiber is available naturally in a number of fruits, plants, and carbs, it shouldn’t be difficult getting enough. But getting too much can sometimes create issues as well. When fiber intake is too high, it replaces other nutrients that you need in your diet – it can also block intake of some protein, which should be absorbed at a premium for vegans who may have difficulty reaching their daily goals. Some fibers also bind certain minerals, like calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and iron, and eating too much fiber too fast can actually block the gastrointestinal tract. Hence, fluids, and a mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber-rich food sources must be maintained.

Overall, fiber is a very useful thing, and if 25 to 30 grams are taken daily, people should see some differences in measures of health. Fiber is said to transport bad cholesterol out of the body, reducing the risk of heart disease, and also keeps most of us from stuffing our faces too much by slowing down the rate of digestion, making us feel full for longer. People must be careful with their fiber choices, however, as some may end up doing more harm than good. Processed grains like white rice and grains used to make white bread and sugary breakfast cereals have had most of their fiber and nutrients stripped away, and they turn into blood sugar quickly when digested, which causes a spike in insulin levels. This tells the body that energy is readily available and that fat should no longer be burned, but stored, effectively screwing up one huge benefit of fiber!

Confusing, indeed, but like all other things in life, it’s best to be picky and not go overboard with fiber.