To put it simply, eating more fiber means a healthy gut, and a healthy gut means a healthy heart. Here's exactly how eating more fiber helps protect your heart.

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As part of a healthy diet, fiber is a nutrient most associated with keeping the digestive tract regular and—thanks to the marketing on the oatmeal container—lowering cholesterol. Recommendations from the American Heart Association and the FDA advise eating approximately 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily. If this seems like a lot, it's because this is almost double the amount that most Americans consume each day. This amount may also leave you wondering what else fiber does in the body and how important it is to get 25 grams, especially if your bathroom habits and cholesterol are already normal?

Fiber's role in the body goes way beyond regularity, and one of fiber's most important roles stems from the influence that gut health has on heart health. To put it simply, a healthier gut means a healthier heart. According to research, a healthy gut has a protective effect on the heart by influencing factors that cause and contribute to heart disease. Check out these four ways that eating fiber protects your heart.

1. Lowers cholesterol in multiple ways

Foods with soluble fiber (such as oats) have demonstrated ability to lower LDL cholesterol levels—the type of cholesterol we want less of—when eaten consistently and regularly. Soluble fiber attaches to bile, a cholesterol-based compound that assists in digesting fats, and both the fiber and bile are later excreted. The body then uses circulating lipids (fats) to form new bile molecules, lowering total and LDL cholesterol. But in addition to that, research now suggests that gut bacteria also influence blood lipid levels. In fact, bacteria in healthy guts play a role in lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

2. Prevents inflammation

Gut health plays a key role in the inflammatory process. The mechanism works like this: A healthy gut creates a protective barrier in the intestines, allowing nutrients to pass into the bloodstream but blocking out many inflammatory compounds in food. When these good bacteria are disrupted or become unbalanced, this barrier isn't as effective and starts to "leak", allowing those compounds into the body. Because most chronic conditions are driven by inflammation, promoting gut health with a healthy, fiber-rich diet is key for preventing heart disease as well as a host of other lifestyle-related conditions.

Vegetarian Butternut Squash Chili with Black Beans

3. Lowers blood pressure

Fiber can't be digested, but good bacteria in the gut can ferment some fibers in the colon. The fermentation process produces short-chain fatty acids. These SCFA provide energy and nutrients for the bacteria, and research suggests that SCFA production can also lower blood pressure. In fact, eating a high-fiber diet is even considered a treatment for hypertension by some health professionals, since increasing fiber intake is the best way to increase SCFA production.

4. Helps you lose belly fat

Consuming a high-fiber diet is associated with less abdominal fat, or fat in the midsection. This is important since people who carry extra weight in their abdominal area are at higher risk for developing heart disease. Increasing daily fiber can help with weight loss by slowing down the digestive process to provide a feeling of fullness and satiety. And it can also increase the number and diversity of good bacteria to reduce inflammation, which is also now considered an underlying driver of obesity.

The Takeaway

The gut-heart connection is a new area of research with lots of unknowns. Until research offers more insight, we do know that eating plenty of fiber-rich foods is one of the best ways to support gut health and that most of us need to get more fiber in each day. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains are the best sources of dietary fiber, providing a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber, so look for ways to sneak more of them into meals and snacks.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, is author of the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award, and her work is regularly featured in or on respective websites for Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, Allrecipes, My Fitness Pal, eMeals, Rally Health and the American Heart Association. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.