Benefits of Fibre in Your Diet
We hear it all the time: “Eat more fibre”, so we assume it must be good for us but most of us don’t know why, and we don’t know how?
Fibre is another macronutrient on our checklist of things to make sure we get enough of; it’s right up there alongside protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Let's take a look at what fibre is and why it is important, its benefits, how much we should be getting as part of a healthy diet, and how we can increase our fibre intake.
What is Fibre? What is Dietary Fibre?
Fibre is simply a type of carbohydrate found naturally in plant-based foods that your body can't digest or absorb. Unlike other food components, such as fats, proteins or carbohydrates — which your body breaks down and absorbs — fibre isn't digested by your body. Instead, it passes relatively intact through your stomach, small intestine and colon and out of your body. Although fibre cannot be digested, it is being moved down the digestive tract as nutrients are being digested, and can do some great things that positively impact our health.
Fibre is commonly classified as soluble, which dissolves in water, or insoluble, which doesn't dissolve:
- Soluble fibre: This type of fibre dissolves in water to form a gel-like material and can help lower glucose levels as well as help lower blood cholesterol. This gel causes a slowing of the digestion process, which can be beneficial for weight loss.
- Insoluble fibre does not dissolve in water. Its primary benefit is to provide bulk to stool and aid in the movement through the digestive tract, promoting regularity and helping prevent constipation.
Most diets have a combination of soluble and insoluble fibre, with 75% coming from insoluble fibre and 25% coming from soluble fibre. The amount of soluble and insoluble fibre varies in different plant foods. To receive the greatest health benefit, we must eat a wide variety of high-fibre foods.
How Much Fibre Do I Need?
Current recommendations for dietary fibre intake for adults in most European countries and the US are between 30–35 g per day for men and between 25–32 g per day for women ( 1).
Children under the age of 16 don't need as much fibre in their diet. The recommendations for children are ( 2 ):
2 to 5 year-olds: need about 15g of fibre a day
5 to 11 year-olds: need about 20g
11 to 16 year-olds: need about 25g
Tips to Increase Fibre Intake
Most of us are not getting enough fibre in our diet, with most adults averaging 18g per day, and teens and children 15g or less a day. In fact, fibre is listed as a nutrient of concern due to the low overall intake and known health benefits, and because of this, we need to find ways of increasing our intake. Here are some tips on increasing your fibre intake:
- Replace fruit juices with eating whole fruits
- For breakfast choose a high-fibre breakfast cereal with 5+ grams of fibre a serving. Opt for cereals with "whole grain" as their first ingredient. Also, look for cereals with "bran" or "fibre" in the name. Or add a few tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran to your favourite cereal. Other great breakfast options are wholewheat biscuits (like Weetabix) or plain shredded whole grain (like Shredded wheat), or porridge as oats are also a good source of fibre.
- Replace white rice, bread, and pasta with brown rice, wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, bulgur wheat and whole-grain products. Look for bread that lists whole wheat, whole-wheat flour or another whole grain as the first ingredient on the label and have at least 2 grams of dietary fibre a serving.
- Eat potatoes with their skins on, such as baked potatoes or boiled new potatoes.
- Substitute whole-grain flour for half of all of the white flour when baking.
- Beans, peas and lentils are excellent sources of fibre. Add pulses like brans, lentils, chickpeas or kidney beans to canned soup, curries, stews or salads. Or make nachos with refried black beans, lots of fresh veggies, whole-wheat tortilla chips and salsa.
- Eat more fruit and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are rich in fibre, as well as vitamins and minerals. Try to eat five or more servings daily. Include plenty of vegetables with meals, either as a side dish or added to sauces, stews or curries.
- Opt for high fibre snacks, such as fresh fruits, raw vegetables, low-fat popcorn and whole-grain crackers. A handful of nuts or dried fruits also is a healthy, high-fibre snack — although be aware that nuts and dried fruits are high in calories. For snacks, try fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, rye crackers, oatcakes and unsalted nuts or seeds. Try snacking on raw vegetables instead of chips, crackers, or chocolate bars.
- For dessert, have fresh or dried fruit, or fruit canned in natural juice.
What about Fibre Supplements?
There are supplements available that can help you get more fibre into your diet. These supplements are considered functional fibres that are isolated from plant sources ( 3). Make sure to talk to your GP or health practitioner and ask if fibre supplements are right for you if you’re trying to treat or prevent a health condition.
- Metamucil (Psyllium) is a type of soluble fibre supplement you can use to bulk stool and encourage regular bowel movements.
- Dextrin is a type of soluble, prebiotic fibre found in products such as Benefiber that promotes good bacteria for overall digestive health.
- Citracel (methylcellulose) and Fibrecon ( polycarbophil) are other fibre supplement options to help keep you regular.
What are the Benefits of a High-Fibre Diet
- Keeps you regular
Dietary fibre makes your stool softer and bulkier- both of which speed its passage from your body. A bulky stool is easier to pass, decreasing your chance of constipation. If you have loose, watery stools, fibre may help to solidify the stool because it absorbs water and adds bulk to the stool.
- Helps maintain bowel health
A high-fibre diet may lower your risk of developing haemorrhoids and small pouches in your colon (diverticular disease). Studies have also found that a high-fibre diet likely lowers the risk of colorectal cancer ( 4). According to a study published in the Annals of Oncology, every 10 grams of fibre you eat is associated with a 10% reduced risk of colorectal cancer and a 5% fall in breast cancer risk ( 5 ). Foods that are high in fibre, such as fruits as vegetables, are also rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals that could further reduce your odds.
- Good for your heart
Studies also have shown that high-fibre foods may have other heart-health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation and lowers cholesterol levels. Soluble fibre found in beans, oats, flaxseed and oat bran may help lower total blood cholesterol levels by lowering low-density lipoprotein, or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. Studies also have shown that high-fibre foods may have other heart-health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation.
- Helps control blood sugar levels.
Fibre — particularly soluble fibre — can slow the absorption of sugar and help improve blood sugar levels. Soluble fibre slows down passage through the gut which gives digestive hormones more time to act and, in doing so, prevents carbohydrates from being absorbed too quickly by the small intestine ( 6 ). This gives us a steadier release of energy throughout the day, without the high bursts and crashes.
- Reduces risk of type 2 Diabetes
A recent study found that people who ate the most fibre (more than 26 grams a day) lowered their odds of the disease by 18% when compared to those who consumed the least (less than 19 grams daily) ( 7 , 8). This is based on fibre's ability to keep blood sugar levels steady and keeping you at a healthy weight that may help wards off the development of diabetes.
- Aids with weight loss and weight management
High-fibre foods tend to be more filling than low-fibre foods, so you're likely to eat less, fill up faster, and stay fuller longer. Also, high-fibre foods tend to take longer to eat and to be less energy-dense, which means they have fewer calories for the same volume of food.
In one study, dieters who were told to take in at least 30 grams of fibre a day, but given no other dietary parameters, lost a significant amount of weight ( 9). In comparison with the group with a much more complex diet that required limiting calories, fat, sugar and salt and upping fruit, veggie and whole-grain consumption, the study found that both groups lost the same amount.
- Reduces risk of disease and cancers
Studies suggest that increasing your dietary fibre intake — especially cereal fibre — is associated with a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and all cancers. For every 7 grams of fibre eaten daily, your risk of heart disease drops by 9% ( 10 ). That's partly due to fibre's ability to sponge up excess cholesterol in your system and transport it out before it can clog your arteries.
- Fibre is natures detox
Fibre naturally scrubs and promotes the elimination of toxins from your digestive tract. Soluble fibre soaks up potentially harmful compounds, such as excess oestrogen and unhealthy fats, before they can be absorbed by the body. Because insoluble fibre makes things move along more quickly, it limits the amount of time that chemicals like BPA, mercury and pesticides stay in your system. The faster they go through you, the less chance they have to cause harm.
To Sum Up
Fibre is a macronutrient that is somewhat overlooked, and chances are you probably aren’t consuming enough. Start eating more fruits and veggies, seeds, legumes, and be on the lookout for foods that have 'whole grains' in them. Natural sources of fibre are the best. With the many benefits of fibre, it’s important we start finding ways of upping our intake. Before the sh… fibre hits the fan.
Author - Paulo Vaa