Even though it plays a significant role towards a healthy lifestyle, it’s common for people to overlook fibre when it comes to their diets. In fact, one of the main reasons whole grains, fruits and vegetables are so beneficial is because of their high fibre content. However, not all fibre is alike with different types of fibre possessing different health benefits. In this article, we’ll explore what fibre is, why it’s important, and some recommendations on how to incorporate more fibre into a diet.
What is fibre?
Predominantly a carbohydrate, the main role of fibre is to maintain a healthy digestive system. However, unlike other carbohydrates, fibre isn’t broken down into smaller molecules and is absorbed by the body. Instead, it passes relatively intact through the stomach and intestines, providing a range of important health benefits. The recommended daily (RDA) intake of fibre varies depending on age and gender. However, the general recommendation is 25-30g per day. In addition, types of fibre are split into two broad categories based on their water solubility:
Soluble fibre: This type of fibre dissolves in water and can be metabolised by the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. It soaks up water like a sponge and helps to bulk out stool, meaning it can pass through the gut more easily. Ultimately soluble fibre slows down the rate of digestion, which can help to regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol levels. Good sources of soluble fibre include oats, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Insoluble fibre: This type of fibre does not dissolve in water and passes through the digestive system relatively intact. It does not absorb water and speeds up the time that food passes through the gut. Insoluble fibre also helps to add bulk to our stool, which helps to manage constipation and associated problems. Good sources of insoluble fibre include whole grain foods, nuts, seeds, and bran.
Why is fibre good for us?
Now let’s take a look at the proposed health benefits of fibre.
Fibre-rich diets have the ability to decrease the risk of heart disease by reducing blood cholesterol levels. In fact, increasing fibre intake by 7g per day can result in a 9% decrease in the likelihood of heart disease.
2Blood sugar control
High-fibre foods commonly have a low glycemic index. As a result, there is a reduction in blood sugar spikes after a high in carbohydrates meal, which reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The research concluded that a diet high in whole grains reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 30%.
3Supports weight management
Fibre can increase the feeling of fullness by soaking up water in the intestine and slowing the absorption of nutrients. Subsequently, there can promote a reduction in appetite and overall calorie intake. This is supported by a study that discovered increasing fibre intake by 14g per day can decrease energy intake by 10%, resulting in body weight loss of up to 2kg over 4 months.
4Improves digestive health
A major benefit of increasing fibre intake is that it reduces constipation by bulking up the stool. As fibre helps absorb water, the bulk of stool increases, while it speeds up the movement of stool through the intestine. However, it is worth noting that these effects depend on the type of fibre. A good rule of thumb is a fibre that increases the water content of your stool has a laxative effect and fibre that adds to the dry mass of stool can cause constipation. For example, sorbitol found in prunes has a laxative effect by drawing water into the colon.
5Promotes good gut health
Prebiotics can alter the composition of organisms in the gut microbiome. Some dietary fibres feed and promote the ‘good’ gut bacteria in the intestines. These bacteria produce nutrients such as short-chain fatty acids, which can improve digestive disorders, immune function and reduce gut inflammation.
6Reduces the risk of cancer
A fibre-rich diet has been shown to reduce the risk of types of cancer, such as breast, ovarian and most notably colorectal cancer by 40%. However, fibre-rich foods such as fruit contain various other healthy nutrients and antioxidants that may also affect the risk of cancer.
10 tips on how to get more fibre to your diet
Most people in the Western world consume far less than the RDA of fibre. Fortunately, there are several easy tips for increasing fibre intake. Here’s our top 10!
1. Opt for fibre-rich snacks: Instead of grabbing the nearest bag of crisps or cookies, choose snacks like fresh fruit. Fruits are an excellent source of fibre while containing other essential nutrients.
2. Eat the skin: Many fruits and vegetables have edible skin that is rich in fibre. For example, apples, pears, and cucumbers.
3. Try seeds and nuts: Seeds and nuts including chia seeds and almonds are also fantastic sources of fibre. Simply add them to oatmeal and smoothies.
4. Choose beans and legumes: Beans and legumes such as lentils and black beans are versatile sources of fibre. Enjoy them as toppings on soups, salads, or even as a side dish.
5. Switch to whole grains: Whole-grain bread, brown rice, brown pasta, and other whole grains to replace foods made with refined carbohydrates.
6. Consistency: In general, try adding a serving of seeds, fruit or vegetables to every meal and snack. For example, berries or sliced bananas are a complimentary addition to any bowl of cereal.
7. Fibre supplements: Although it’s better to consume fibre from food sources rather than fibre supplements, if an individual is struggling with fibre intake, a supplement may be worth considering. However, it is advised to speak with a doctor or registered dietitian before starting any supplement.
8. Hydration: Fibre will not prevent constipation unless the individual drinks enough water every day. This is key.
9. Take it slow: Stick to the recommended intake and slowly introduce fibre into a diet. A sudden switch from a low-fibre diet to a high-fibre diet can lead to abdominal pain and increased wind.
10. Portion sizes: Consuming too much fibre at once can cause bloating and digestive discomfort, therefore, aim to spread fibre intake across the day.
Fibre is an essential nutrient that plays a significant role in our health and well-being. Furthermore, switching to a more fibre-rich diet can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Thankfully, foods high in fibre are accessible, versatile and easy to incorporate into our diets. However, it is important to note that fibre-rich diets can cause stomach discomfort. And although these side effects usually go away with time as the human body adjusts, it’s important to stick to the RDA, space out intake, and stay hydrated.
Hungry for knowledge? Here is more
Check out this video from Dr. Paul Mason in which he explains the importance of dietary fibre for gut health. Dr. Mason obtained his medical degree with honours from the University of Sydney and also holds degrees in Physiotherapy and Occupational Health. He is a Specialist in Sports Medicine and Exercise Physician.
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