Our knowledge of what happens in the gut still has a long way to go, but the role of fibre is now recognised as crucial.
If we define what Fibre is exactly is, I often think back to when I was at school dietary fibre (roughage as it was then called) was just considered to be a waste product, all useful the stuff having been extracted from it.
The words of Hippocrates “Let food be your medicine and medicine your food” are proving more and more true as research sheds more light on the matter.
An essential dietary requirement
Our western diet typically contains many refined carbohydrates e.g., white flour or white rice and sugars. They are broken down rapidly in the digestive tract to produce glucose and leave very little residue.
Fibre on the other hand, is made up mostly of very tough complex carbohydrates that are resistant to digestive juices and cannot be completely broken down in the small intestine.
Not all Fibre is the Same
There are, in fact, two different types of fibre. Fibrous foods contain both types but the proportions vary, both types support the growth of gut bacteria, but not the same varieties:
This is not broken down in small intestine, when it arrives in colon intact; it bulks the faeces, and is very slowly digested by some of the gut bacteria. Also provides a useful “lattice” on which bacteria can multiply.
Examples of common foods high in insoluble fibre include – whole grain cereals, oats, brown rice, beans of all types, most root vegetables, nuts, and seeds:
Partially digested in the small intestine, and then subjected to fermentation by gut enzymes in the colon. This type of fibre has the highest bacterial diversity and provides our body with useful nutrients such as short chain fatty acids. Soluble fibre forms a gel in the gut that slows down absorption of glucose helping keep blood glucose levels more even over the course of the day.
It has a role in controlling Low Density Lipoprotein (that is Bad Cholesterol to you and me). Some of the bacteria produce antibodies so the processes going on in the gut are important to help keep our immune system healthy.
Examples of common foods high in soluble fibre include fruit, beans, leafy vegetables, oats, and sweet potatoes.
Beans, contain both Insoluble and Soluble fibre, as well as being a good source of plant protein; they are particularly valuable in the gut. Oats are also high in both varieties of fibre.
By factoring plenty of fibre rich unrefined food into your diet on a daily basis has a protective effect against a number of health problems including:
- Heart Disease
- Type II Diabetes
- Digestive problems
- Colorectal Cancer
Making Fibre a part your daily nutrition intake
It is not as easy as advising people to “Eat Five Pieces of Fruit and Veg a Day.” Although if you do eat your Five-a-Day it is a significant contribution towards your daily fibre intake.
To discover which foods have the highest fibre content, aligned with how much you should have, you would have to consult nutritional tables and info on packets and tins.
This is far from convenient! Why?
I cannot imagine most people are likely to plan their fibre intake this way every day. The recommended intake for an adult is about 30g daily. The actual average intake in our society is about 18g daily.
Therefore, most people would have to double approximately their fibre intake to get to the recommended amount.
One suggestion is that half your plate should be made up of fibre rich foods, but I suspect most people do not eat three meals a day on a plate where the main nutrient groups are conveniently separated.
When it comes to ensuring that your children eat enough fibre, especially if they do not like veg then it can be “concealed” in tomato sauce or soups by blending/ liquidising them together.
Should your diet be low in fibre, you can make simple changes and start to incorporate high fibre foods:
- Incorporate more whole wheat products in your diet – either ready-made or homemade if you enjoy cooking. The most obvious is whole wheat bread, which is readily available and whole wheat cereals including porridge or muesli
- Swap to brown rice – it has more flavour than white rice (but does not seem to be available in cooked form!)
- Cook potatoes in their jackets and eat the skin, it makes life easier as you do not have to peel them!
Another, I have often found adding extra vegetables or beans to dishes such as shepherd’s pie, lasagne, stews, curries, and soups.
Should you do not want to prepare fresh fruit and vegetables then frozen ones are fine. Tinned beans of all varieties are cheap and convenient.
You do not have to become vegetarian, or give up most foods you like, consider trying tasting a few things you have not eaten before or substituting higher fibre alternatives, which can be incorporated in your lifestyle on a regular basis.
Some of the time, you may graze or snack, eat sandwiches, or you might like one-pot meals; thus it is ideal work around your own eating pattern and preferences to make this a part of your life.