It’s the most underrated component of a truly healthy diet, yet studies show a deficiency puts you at risk of a whole host of illnesses…
These days we seem obsessed with our protein intake or how many grams of carbs we’ve had. But what about fibre? It’s not had much time in the spotlight so it might have dropped off your health radar, but overlook this important macronutrient at your peril.
Last month, a new study published in The Journal of Physiology found that fibre might be the key to beating stress and anxiety. It’s all to do with the short-chain fatty acids our gut bacteria produces when we have adequate intake. So in theory, eating your fill of wholegrains, legumes and vegetables can help keep your stress levels in check.
But that’s not all. Studies have linked high fibre consumption with a reduced risk of breast cancer. Experts speculate it may be because it helps the body eliminate excess oestrogen, which fuels hormone-driven cancers. Your liver filters oestrogen out of the blood and passes it on to the digestive tract to be escorted out by fibre. If you don’t have enough fibre, waste matter stays for longer than it should in the intestines and oestrogen is re-absorbed into the blood stream. “Fibre may also lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer,” says nutritionist Lily Soutter (lilysoutternutrition.com). “It helps to maintain a healthy gut, may treat or prevent constipation, and helps lower a high blood cholesterol level or even high blood pressure.
“It may also help people maintain a healthy body weight. Many fibre-rich foods provide a slow release of energy into the blood stream. This slow release of energy alongside a rich fibre content can help us feel fuller for longer, which may aid weight loss.”
The government’s recommended guidelines for fibre intake increased in 2015 to 30g a day, but according to Lily, most people in the UK are currently only eating about 18g. “There are several reasons for this,” she explains. “People aren’t eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and they are consuming too many white refined carbohydrates which have been stripped of their fibrous outer layer – things like white bread, white pasta, rice and other white flour products. Wholemeal bread, for example, contains 2.2g of fibre per slice, whereas white bread may only offer around 0.8g, so you can see what a difference choosing wholemeal makes. Also, low-carb diets have been trendy for a while, but they aren’t necessarily healthy. By omitting starchy carbohydrates from the diet, a huge portion of fibre is also missed.”
“If your diet is lacking in fibre it can lead to constipation – which is less than one bowel movement a day, and means your faeces are taking too long to travel the length of your colon,” says nutritional therapist Jody Middleton (jodymiddleton.com). “This can have a very detrimental effect upon the balance of organisms (the good and bad bacteria) that inhabit the colon.
“If levels of toxins become elevated due to constipation, many health problems can occur such as an overburdened liver and lymphatic system, poor skin health, arthritis, fatigue, mental sluggishness, headaches and abdominal pain. Fibre binds to and deactivates carcinogens and therefore helps to reduce the risk of colon cancer, and the fact it helps balance blood sugar levels means it’s a critical part of our diet in terms of prevention of disease and premature ageing.”
There are two types of fibre – soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fibre does not dissolve in water and is not broken down by our digestive system. “It passes through our intestines undigested and provides bulk to stools and keeps them regular,” says Jody. “This type of fibre is mainly found in wheat bran, other whole grains and some vegetables and fruit skins.”
Soluble fibre dissolves in water and absorbs it. “It’s broken down into a soft smooth mass in the digestive system,” says Jody. “It’s mainly found in legumes, vegetables, fruits, oats, barley, rye and seeds. It helps to remove hardened faecal matter from the lining of the colon wall. It may also be beneficial in lowering overall blood cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol, and it slows the rate at which glucose enters the blood, so it helps with blood sugar control.”
Fibre can be tricky for someone with sensitive bowels. “Experience of this type of gut irritation is very personal,” says nutritionist Miguel Toribio-Mateas (miguelmateas.com). “If you asked one hundred people who have IBS-like symptoms, each will tell you that different foods trigger their problem. Whatever it is that triggers yours, it is a good idea to cut those down, or even completely out of, your diet temporarily and assess how you feel. I am perfectly happy for my clients to cut ultra-processed foods out of their diet. Gram per gram there are other sources of fibre, such as fresh vegetables and fruit, which have the additional advantage of coming loaded with a lot more nutrients than bread or cakes. But, if what causes the irritation is veggies, I’d painstakingly try to identify which ones I could have regularly that my gut felt fine with – the reason being that I wouldn’t want to cut down on vegetables, and definitely not cut them out.
“Try to simplify your meals so you’re adding only one type of vegetable per meal for a couple of weeks,” he continues. “Assess how your gut feels after each meal and write it down in a journal, so that you can be sure when you review it that whatever vegetable source of fibre you’ve eaten has agreed with you. Even though gluten-containing grains and foods are not necessarily the culprit, in my experience most people do feel the benefit of at least trying to be gluten-free for a few weeks. It’s an absolutely safe thing to do and it’s super easy – you don’t have to spend money on gluten-free product substitutes. Instead of buying gluten-free pasta, why not have some potatoes or sweet potatoes if you fancy something succulent and starchy on your plate? And if you are drawn to a lower-carb diet, going gluten-free is even easier because you can get your RDA of fibre (and a lot more than that) just from eating a rainbow of different vegetables.”
Here’s Jody Middleton’s meal plan for getting 30g of fibre in a day
Breakfast: porridge made with almond milk, sprinkled with nuts and seeds and two teaspoons of flaxseeds, ideally soaked in water the night before.
Lunch: a big salad with a large variety of vegetables, including celery and spring onions, with some lentils and a salmon fillet, boiled egg, chicken or tofu. (Tip: Merchant Gourmet sell pouches of readycooked lentils if you are short of time. Or you can simply soak a load of lentils in water overnight and cook up a big batch in the morning to store in the fridge.)
Dinner: a vegetable curry cooked with onions and garlic as well as sweet potato, chick peas and raisins. Serve with brown rice.
The main take-home point is to eat a large variety of fibrous colourful vegetables to help to feed your good bacteria!
Lily Soutter’s easy ways to add in more fibre to your diet
• Cereals grain are cheap to buy and easy to cook. Wheat, oats, barley and rye fall under this category. A daily bowl of porridge or two slices of wholegrain toast can instantly give your breakfast a fibre boost.
• Choose wholegrains over white refined carbohydrates.
• Keep the skin on your potatoes.
• Sprinkle over fibre-rich seeds to your porridge, salads or avocado on toast.
• Beans, chickpeas and lentils are cheap and easy to cook.
• Flaxseeds (linseeds) or chia seeds are great sources of fibre.
• Choose high fibre snacks such as popcorn, fruit, fruit dipped in nut butter, nuts, seeds, wholegrain crackers with hummus or beanbased dips.
• Fill half your plate with vegetables at each meal.
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