Fibre it isn’t as bland as you think – and there’s good reason why all of us should take conscious steps to make sure we’re getting enough.
A recent study published in The Lancet medical journal – one of the most prestigious publications addressing medical questions in the world – found people who routinely eat lots of fibre have significantly lower rates of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer, compared with those who consume much lower amounts.
Fibre can also help with weight loss and general health maintenance. Yet, the British Nutrition Foundation says that in the UK, most people still don’t fall within the government guidelines for daily fibre intake, preferring instead a diet heavy with carbohydrates instead of plant-based foods which are rich with the all important roughage that cannot be completely broken down by human digestive enzymes. Fibre passes through the body undigested, keeping your digestive system clean and healthy, easing bowel movements, and flushing cholesterol and harmful carcinogens out of the body.
How much fibre should I be eating?
“We recommended that adults in the UK eat 30g of fibre a day, but on average we’re eating much less – about 20g per day,” says Bridget Benelam, nutrition communications manager at The British Nutrition Foundation (nutrition.org.uk).
It can be tricky to tell if you’re deficient in fibre, but she says the biggest clue will often be your bowel movements. “A lack of fibre can affect different people in different ways, but suffering from constipation can be a major indicator that you are not getting enough.”
It’s not all about toilet habits though. “Even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms, it’s worth thinking about upping your fibre intakes,” Benelam adds, “as we know that fibre is really important for our long-term health.”
To increase your fibre intake you could:
Choose a higher-fibre breakfast cereal such as plain wholewheat biscuits (like Weetabix) or plain shredded whole grain (like Shredded wheat), or porridge as oats are also a good source of fibre. Find out more about healthy breakfast cereals. Go for wholemeal or granary breads, or higher fibre white bread, and choose wholegrains like wholewheat pasta, bulgur wheat or brown rice. Try potatoes with their skins on, such as a baked potato or boiled new potatoes and add pulses like beans, lentils or chickpeas to stews, curries and salads. Then you should remember to include plenty of vegetables with meals, either as a side dish or added to sauces and stews or.
You basically need to think about how you can get your five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day and stick with it despite the myriad temptations of following an unhealthy, calorific died of deep fried carbs and zero-health benefit refined sugars.
So have some fresh or dried fruit, or fruit canned in natural juice for dessert. Because dried fruit is sticky, it can increase the risk of tooth decay, so it’s better if it is only eaten as part of a meal, rather than as a between-meal snack.
For snacks, try fresh fruit, vegetable sticks like carrots or celery, rye crackers, oatcakes and unsalted nuts like almonds and peanuts or seeds.
Dietary fibres are found in the indigestible parts of plants, such as the leaves, stems and roots. “Fibre is basically carbohydrates that are found in plant-based foods, like fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains,” explains Dr Naveen Puri, lead physician at Bupa Health Clinics (bupa.co.uk). Puri explains that fibre is unique because it stays in your digestive tract for nearly the entire digestive process. “Fibre isn’t broken down and absorbed in your small bowel like other types of food, but passes undigested into your large bowel. In this way, it helps to keep your digestive system in good working order.”
It’s often referred to as two different types – soluble and insoluble. “Soluble fibre is generally thought to have more effect in your small bowel, and insoluble fibre in your large bowel,” Puri continues.“However, many scientific organisations argue that this picture is no longer clear-cut and, as a result, these terms are being phased out. You may still see these terms being used, but what’s really important to remember is to eat a variety of different fibre-containing foods.”
Why is fibre important for health?
Experts say fibre is responsible for keeping us full throughout the day, keeping our digestion regular, and even protecting us from some major health issues down the line. It’s also very important for general gut health and microbiome, which supports multiple functions throughout the body and brain: “Fibre has lots of important roles in our body, including keeping our bowels regular and our microbiome healthy, reducing the amount of saturated fat we absorb from our diet, regulating our blood sugars and keeping us feeling full after meals,” says dietitian Sophie Medlin (@sophiedietitian).
She explains that a high-fibre diet is linked with a reduced chance of developing many common problems such as diverticular disease and irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, diabetes and even weight problems. As well as protecting your health, it can also make going to the toilet more comfortable too. “Fibre bulks up stools, makes them softer and easier to pass, moving waste through the digestive tract more quickly,” says Puri.
Experts share some simple strategies for boosting your fibre intake.
“Kick off the day with a high-fibre breakfast like porridge, Shredded Wheat or whole-wheat cereals,” advises Puri. Not only will this set you on track to hitting your nutrition goals, but it will help keep you full until lunchtime.
Getting your five-a-day is a great way to keep on top of your fibre intake. “Replace unhealthy snacks with fresh fruit and veg, oatcakes or unsalted seeds and nuts,” suggests Puri.
As a general rule, white carbs are lower in fibre than their brown or wholemeal alternatives. “Wholemeal or granary bread typically has higher fibre than white bread,” notes Puri. “Similarly, brown rice and pasta will normally be higher in fibre than the white alternatives, so consider making the swap next time you’re at the supermarket.”
If you’re cooking potatoes, Puri says leaving their skins on will increase the fibre content on your plate. Simply give them a scrub before cooking.
“Seeds are high in fibre, and you can sprinkle them onto soups, salads, breakfasts and avocado,” says Medlin, who adds that they give a delicious nutty crunch to dishes too. In recent years, there’s been a general shift towards having more meat-free days, both for environmental and health reasons – and beans and pulses are a great way to bulk out plant-based meals. Pioritising wholefoods over processed foods is a good aim.