The One Essential Nutrient That Can Transform Your Health (That Almost Everyone Overlooks)

What’s the one essential nutrient that was revered by ancient civilisations, that formed the basis of the true Paleo diet, that’s been proven by modern science to reverse heart disease and lower breast cancer, that features heavily in the diets of all the Blue Zones, that can help reduce obesity and transform your microbiome… yet is overlooked by almost everyone? Join me for this must-listen episode, where we look at this one crucial nutrient (that’s likely in your fridge right now) and find out how it can radically uplevel your health (um, and your poo — don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

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In my first three episodes back from a 17-month break from podcasting, we have gone deep into what’s really driving the global pandemic, how to deal with racism, global warming as told through the beautiful lens of the life of coral, and today we are going to lighten things up a bit, literally, and talk about the one key nutrient that everyone overlooks… but that everyone needs more of. That might sound like I am generalising, but as we get into this episode you will see that no matter what your diet, you can never have enough of this one key nutrient.

If you have been on your own health journey, chances are you would have heard the phrase ‘eat like our ancestors’. This is where the popular Paleo diet was ultimately born, from the assumption that because we found animal bones in human archeological sites, that we must have eaten lots of animals. Even the term ‘hunter-gatherer’ conjures up an image of a man wearing an animal skin, holding a spear and going out to kill and bring back food for the tribe. 

Now, of course, there would be some truth to that. To say that humans never ate animals would be misleading, but perhaps, all along, we should have been calling them ‘gatherer-hunters’ as a more accurate description of how our ancestors once lived.

Why this switch around? Well, it turns out that gathering played a much larger role in our ancestor’s lives and the way they ate than has been previously thought. And the way that scientists found this out is kind of fascinating…

During most archeological excavations, there was one fossilised human artifact that was found at virtually every site, but that was largely ignored. Know what it was? Poo. Fossilised poo. Makes sense right? Of course, there was poo! And yet for the longest time, it was overlooked as a source of data. But if we really want to know what our ancestors eat, well then let’s look at what they excreted; what actually went through their systems. And what scientists have now found over and over again is that this Paleo poo, no matter where in the world it is found, is in fact jam-packed with one key nutrient: fibre.

For millions of years, food meant fiber. And I’m not talking about psyllium husks or Metamucil here. I’m talking about plants — glorious, various, fibrous plants. There is enough data now to show that for 99% of the time humans have been on planet earth as a species, our digestive systems have been exposed to a diet very high in plant roughage. So let’s dig into what this means…

Dietary fiber is a plant-based nutrient that is sometimes called ‘roughage’ or ‘bulk’. It is a type of carbohydrate that comes from the indigestible parts of plant-based foods. Unlike other carbs, it cannot be broken down into digestible sugar molecules. Therefore, fiber passes through the intestinal tract relatively intact. However, on its journey, fiber does a lot of handy work for us.

The work it does depends on what type of fibre it is — insoluble or soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber (i.e. fibre that doesn’t dissolve) promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk. Foods high in insoluble fiber include wheat bran, whole grains, cereals, seeds, and the skins of many fruits and vegetables.

Soluble fibre is fibre that dissolves in water. This type of fibre slows your digestion, which helps you absorb nutrients from food. Foods with high levels of soluble fiber include dried beans, oats, oat bran, rice bran, barley, citrus fruits, apples, strawberries, peas, and potatoes. 

The recommended daily intake of fibre (regardless of which type, soluble or insoluble) is 20-35g. Although the average Westerner only consumes around 15-25g of fibre per day. Some other cultures are doing better in the fibre stakes — in rural China, studies have shown an average of 77g per day and in rural Africa 60-120g. In fact, it has been demonstrated that rural Africans can usually pass a stool specimen on demand. No pushing, just a nice little slide out the backside. A clean snap. One wipe, so to speak. Which is awesome, but most of us westerners are not getting anywhere near that much.

By comparison to these modern measurements, do you know how much fibre there was in the average Paleo poo? Drum roll… 104g. That’s 3-4 times the recommended daily intake! And a whole 4-5 times what most of us are getting! 

This intrigued me, so I decided to do an experiment recently and tracked my fiber intake for a day. I wasn’t trying to increase my bulk, I was just eating normally for me. This was on a training day where I ate a bit more food than days when I don’t train. And remember, this is what works for me, a Vata pitta male who exercises a lot, has a fast metabolism and has to feed a hungry creative brain.

  • I started out the day with warm lemon water, then for breakfast, I had gluten-free organic oats cooked in water, with wild blueberries, maple syrup, freshly ground chia and flaxseed, topped with cinnamon and a side of ginger tea to wake up my digestion. 
  • This barely touched the sides, so about one hour later I made a smoothie with two cups of the same blueberries, one massive handful of spinach, coconut water, pepitas and two scoops of hemp protein. I drank this slowly over one hour during my morning songwriting session.
  • About one hour before lunch, I had a big bottle of very warm water. Then for lunch, there was two small sweet potatoes, a cup of black beans, steamed broccoli and kale with a squeeze of lemon juice (for maximum iron absorption) and yellow mustard seed powder (for increasing sulforaphane bioavailability from cruciferous vegetables that have been cooked), topped with dulse and some mixed nuts. So good. So easy. So cheap.
  • After lunch, I went for a one hour walk and when I came back, I had another bottle of warm water. In the afternoon, before I did my workout, I had a mandarin for a little bit of easy to digest glucose and extra vitamin C.
  • My post-workout meal was a smoothie of mixed berries, coconut water, 2 scoops of fermented brown rice protein powder, some hemp seeds and spirulina.
  • Dinner consisted of gooey baked sweet potato, a lentil curry over a small bed of quinoa, steamed mixed veggies topped with lemon juice and a sprinkle of chopped nuts.

(Side note: I did a podcast on food combining which was called How Food Combining Will Transform Your Digestionwhich will explain how I ate this meal for maximum assimilation.)

Sounds like a lot, hey? I mean, who eats that many plants?! Surely that must have smashed the Paleo poo for fibre content?! Actually, no. I made it to 94 grams! That may be very good for a Westerner, but this shows us very clearly that our ancestors were chowing down way more on roughage than they were on ribs.

As well as revealing our fibre intake, our bowel movements also tell us a lot about our health. Egypt, with a civilisation that lasted over 3,000 years, knew a thing or two about the body. And they cared a lot about bowel movements. Pharaohs even had their own physician known as the guardian of the royal bowel movement, directly translated as ‘Shepherd of the Anus’. Yep. They were onto it.

A bowel movement for every meal = health
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Hippocrates said 2-3 bowel movements per day was ideal. And I’m not talking about squeezing out some hard stinky nuggets. These should be three smooth and easy ‘smiley’ logs that take one wipe to clean up. The hallowed ‘clean snap’. If, from this episode, I can share just one simple idea with you that would make Hippocrates proud, it would be this: a movement for every meal. That means if you eat 3 meals a day, there needs to be enough plant material in there to allow for a healthy poo each time.

Your poop is made up of around 75% water, so if you want some easy sliders, you gotta sip that water and have a diet that is made up of foods that contain a lot of water or that hold water when soaked and cooked. Interestingly, when you take the water away from poop, 50-80% of it is actually bacteria. Not yesterday’s food. And what do bacteria feed on? Fibre.

To reach this milestone of ‘a movement for every meal’, it helps to understand the mechanics of the gut and what happens when we eat. Within our first few mouthfuls of food, we stimulate a reflex that causes waves of colonic activity and starts the process of emptying our bowel. To trigger the actual defecation reflex, however, you need to accumulate 100 to 150g of faeces in the bowel. If you are only having one bowel movement per day — or one every few days — which averages around 100g in weight, then clearly you are nowhere near getting the fibre you need to bulk out the poo. Makes sense, right? 

Bowel movements — regular ones — are so important, there are even calls to make them a vital sign that is assessed in hospitals, just like blood pressure or pulse rate.

So that’s a lot of talk about fibre and poo… but why does this all matter? What is fiber actually going to do for you? Let’s look at it through the lens of the world’s #1 killer, heart disease. Dr Dean Ornish published a landmark study in 1990 in one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world that proved diet could not only slow our #1 killer but actually reverse heart disease and open up clogged arteries — without drugs or surgery. What was the diet used in the study? Low-fat, whole food, plant-based. 

It’s not just heart disease; breast cancer risk has been shown to be lower in people with adequate fiber intakes. And note that that’s just adequate intake. Imagine if the study was done on those with optimal fibre intake? Turns out that rural societies that have much higher fibre intakes than the vast majority of westerners have drastically lower cancer rates. When you eat more plants and get more fiber, you also get a much broader spectrum of other nutrients which have their own protective qualities. So you’re also nourishing your body with all those beautiful phytonutrients that are so abundant in plants.

What else is fibre good for? Maintaining a healthy microbiome. Here’s a newsflash for you: it’s not the juice cleanse or the expensive probiotic that does the regular heavy lifting of keeping your gut squeaky clean, it’s the fibre and the diversity of fibre in your diet that is most important. When our microbiome gets out of whack, we create ‘gut dysbiosis’ which is basically where your microbes have been damaged by either pharmaceuticals, stress, environmental toxins, poor food choices, the products you put on your skin, antibiotics, the water you drink and so much more. 

I can personally testify that a diet high in fat — like low-carb or ketogenic — is the single fastest way to destroy your gut microbiome and create dysbiosis. The good bacteria just don’t get the food they need when you’re eating that way, so the balance is quickly destroyed and allows for pathogenic bacteria to take over. Even modern diets like Paleo, while better than a traditional western diet, are still going to be lacking in the fibre diversity needed to nurture a healthy microbiome. With that in mind, if you look at the Carnivore diet, which is zero fibre, well… enough said. Good bacteria just can’t flourish under those conditions.

So let’s zoom in closer on your microbiome… There are around 38 trillion microbes inside you right now, which means there are more microbes than there are cells in your body. In fact, microorganisms outnumber your own cells by 10 to 1. Which means that when you look at your DNA, around 99% of that actually comes from microbes. Crazy right? So when they are damaged, that means a lot of YOU is damaged, and it causes increased intestinal permeability, a.k.a. ‘leaky gut’, which then allows the release of bacterial endotoxins into the bloodstream.

Yikes. Hurts just thinking about it right? Unfortunately, this is extremely common and is driving so much of the inflammatory diseased states found in most societies around the world. But there is some good news: there’s this misconception that we can’t digest fiber. Now we can’t do it alone, but we can with a little help from our gut flora friends. These microbes consist of bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and parasites, and guess what they love to eat? Ok, I know I am getting repetitive here, but I hope the point is being driven home: fibre, of course! Fiber is metabolised by our gut flora into short-chain fatty acids. Guess what role short-chain fatty acids play in healing the gut? They prevent the overgrowth of the more harmful pathogens, which means your microbiome has a chance at rebalancing and cultivating diversity, plus your body gets a chance to repair the tight junctions in your digestive tract to start healing intestinal permeability, and so much more. With a healthy microbiome comes so many flow-on benefits… and it all starts with fibre.

But not all fibre is created equal. For starters, if you’re thinking of adding fibre to your diet by grabbing a canister of Metamucil or some other commercial “fibre product”, let me say this: not only are you adding in artificial colours, flavours and preservatives to your diet, you’re also using that product to replace natural whole plant foods — which means you’re missing out on the nutrients of those foods. Likewise, if you’re reaching for a natural fibre replacement to add more bulk into your diet (like, say, psyllium husk) yes, that’s definitely a step better than Metamucil. But ideally, we don’t want to have to “tack” fibre onto our diet as an afterthought… we want to be eating in such a way that the fibre is present and at the forefront of every single meal. Not an ‘accessory’ we add on afterwards to bandaid over poor food choices.

This means the absolute best option to increase your fibre intake is to look to the plant world, and ingest a vast array of different plants. Each plant has its own unique fibre make-up, which will benefit different microbes, allowing a robust spectrum of bacteria to thrive. This means your health can essentially be judged by the diversity of plants in your diet. The more different types of plants you eat, the more microbial diversity you get in your gut. The more diversity in the gut, the better your health. It’s a simple equation. There are tens of thousands of different microbes in your gut (well, hopefully — if your gut is diverse), and they all like different foods, so make sure you feed them a diverse mix of plants.

When it comes to ensuring diversity in my own diet, one of my favourite sources of inspiration is the new book, Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100, by Dan Buettner. The author visited tiny kitchens from Ikaria to Okinawa to learn these almost forgotten recipes and to document them before they were lost forever as the older generations with the knowledge slowly start to fade away.

(If you’re interested in diving deeper into this, I did an entire 10-part series on this show called The Longevity Series, which was based around the work of The Blue Zones, which you can find starting at Episode 40.)

There is also a fantastic book that has just come out by Dr Will Bulsiewicz called Fiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome, which gives you a 4-week plan to transition to a plant-based way of eating

On that note, let’s be clear: this is not a diet. It’s a lifestyle. It is not restrictive. It’s expansive. No matter what your dietary preference, you are going to live longer the more plants you eat. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, herbs, spices, mushrooms, sea vegetables and seeds. There is a whole world for you to explore, and your bugs will thank you… and your poo will too. ;)


I would love to hear from you, so please tag me @iamnickbroadhurst on social media. Please also leave me a comment below (I read every single one!). And if you could take a minute to leave me a review on iTunes I would be very grateful. Tell me what you want more of! I am at your service.

P.S. Always listen to your intuition (and your doctor or practitioner) before trying any new health or lifestyle practice.

2 Comments

    • Hi Nick,

      I just found your podcast and love it. Thanks for sharing, I love the music, the sound quality and the content. Glad you brought it back. 🙏

      July 22, 2020
      • So glad you found it Craig 🙏🏼

        Nick Broadhurst
        July 27, 2020
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