Fibre has received some great publicity over the last couple of months prompting some nutrition experts to promote all things fibre through ‘Fibre February’.
This is great news as fibre is not the sexiest of topics – not surprising with a strapline of ‘provides faecal bulk’! On top of this, in recent years there have been a raft of newspaper headlines around health risks related to over consumption of carbohydrates leading many to adopt a diet which rejects or severely limits carbohydrates, the knock-on effect being a lack of fibre in the diet.
The new focus on fibre has come about as a result of a comprehensive study that was published in The Lancet in January this year and will be used to inform World Health Organisation guidelines on fibre intake. The findings of the study challenge the fad anti-carb diets and add a lot of evidence to support the health benefits of fibre.
So, what is fibre?
Fibre goes by another (slightly less catchy) name of Non-Starch Polysaccharide. A Polysaccharide is another name for a starchy carbohydrate made up of many sugar units (also known as a complex carbohydrate).
Although we eat fibre and it is essential in our diets it is resistant to digestion, hence often being referred to as ‘roughage’. Fibre can be soluble (dissolves in water) or non-soluble (cannot) and is solely found in foods from plant origin.
Most foods which are rich in fibre provide both types and it has long been understood that both types of fibre provide many heath benefits. Because soluble fibre absorbs water during digestion this slows everything down meaning that our blood sugar response is less high and less fast, energy levels are steadier plus it helps us to feel fuller for longer so helps to control our appetite.
Insoluble fibre is the one linked to a reduction in colon and bowel cancer because it keeps the gut moving and provides regular bowel movements thus reducing constipation.
How much fibre should we have?
The recommended fibre intake for adults is 30g per day. However, most of us are not getting enough. I provide nutritional analysis for my clients from food diaries that they keep and it is not unusual for this analysis to highlight a lack of fibre in the diet.
The study identifies that most people worldwide consume less that 20g of dietary fibre per day and in the UK only 9% of adults manage to reach the 30g target.
What are the health benefits of fibre?
The key findings were:
~ People who eat higher levels of dietary fibre and whole grains have lower rates of non-communicable diseases compared with people who eat lesser amounts (Noncommunicable diseases are also known as chronic diseases resulting from genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioural factors. They include cardiovascular diseases and diabetes).
~ Observational studies and clinical trials conducted over nearly 40 years reveal the health benefits of eating at least 25g to 29g or more of dietary fibre a day.
~ The results suggest a 15-30% decrease in all-cause and cardiovascular related mortality when comparing people who eat the highest amount of fibre to those who eat the least.
~ Eating fibre-rich foods also reduced incidence of coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer by 16-24%. Per 1,000 participants, the impact translates into 13 fewer deaths and six fewer cases of coronary heart disease.
~ In addition, a meta-analysis of clinical trials suggested that increasing fibre intakes was associated with lower bodyweight and cholesterol, compared with lower intakes.
~Fibre can therefore not only help us to manage our weight and cholesterol levels but also help to protect us from heart disease, type 2 diabetes stroke and colorectal cancer.
This all makes a very strong case for ensuring we hit our daily 30g target. So how do we achieve this?
The importance of wholegrains
Good sources of dietary fibre include pulses, vegetables and fruit and the study gave particular mention to whole grains;
~ For every 15g increase of whole grains eaten per day, total deaths and incidences of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer decreased by 2-19%.
~ Higher intakes of whole grains were associated with a 13-33% reduction in noncommunicable disease risk – translating into 26 fewer deaths per 1,000 people from all-cause mortality and seven fewer cases of coronary heart disease per 1,000 people.
~ The meta-analysis of clinical trials involving whole grains showed a reduction in bodyweight. Whole grains are high in dietary fibre, which could explain their beneficial effects.
So, what are whole grains? Grains come from cereal crops including oats, wheat, rye, barley and rice and whole grain is just what is says – the entire grain incorporating the bran (outer layer), the germ (inner part) and a central starchy part without the grain being milled or refined (to become white). Therefore, you can get whole grain versions of all these cereal crops and the products that they go into such as breads, pastas and flours and these are now much more widely available in supermarkets than they were a few years ago.
Tips for increasing fibre in your diet
As with any changes to your diet, you need to take a gradual approach and don’t make any sudden, dramatic changes. Therefore, increase your fibre intake by smaller amounts over time to allow your body to get used to the change. Also ensure you are drinking enough water to allow the fibre to work, around 8 glasses per day.
~ As there are different types of fibre it is best to eat a range of fibre rich foods rather than relying on one source.
~ Focus on increasing your consumption of whole grains i.e. wholemeal or whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta, bulgur wheat, buckwheat, brown rice and use wholemeal flour in baking or try half and half (half the recipe white flour and half wholemeal).
~ Eat potatoes with their skin on such as baked or new potatoes.
~ Increase your fruit and vegetable intake, try and incorporate fruit and veg into every meal and snack.
~ Start your day with fibre with muesli, bran flakes or porridge with fruit.
~ Good lunch options include vegetable and bean or lentil based salads or soups, wholemeal bread sandwiches, whole wheat pasta salad or a baked potato.
~ For cooked meals try adding pulses, lentils and chickpeas to stews and casseroles.
~ Try replacing refined carbohydrate snacks with things like oatcakes, nuts, seeds and fruit.
So, I hope you agree, although not a sexy topic there is some pretty strong evidence to show that it is a really important one for our health!