We often hear about the importance of certain food components, but fibre tends not to make the headlines very often. Fibre is not glamorous, but it deserves as much attention as essential fatty acids, protein and vitamins.
I wanted to take some time to set down exactly why fibre is important. It is not less or more important than vitamins, minerals, protein and fats to our health, but the fact is, without enough dietary fibre, we are susceptible to some unpleasant health concerns and even some cancers.
WHAT IS FIBRE?
Fibre is the component of plant cell walls and cannot be digested or absorbed into our bloodstream. There are two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble, and you can find them in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, seeds and grains.
Soluble fibre tends to ‘dissolve’ or turn to gel in our digestive systems. If you have ever soaked flax or chia seeds you’ll know what I mean. Insoluble fibre does not absorb or dissolve in water but remains in its original form and helps move bulk through the intestines. You need both types of fibre for a healthy digestive system.
WHY IS FIBRE IMPORTANT?
- Fibre is critical for detoxification: One of the most important functions of fibre is to keep things moving through our digestive system. If you have fewer than one bowel movement a day, it is possible that you are constipated and fibre can help improve your transit time. If you are not having regular bowel movements you may feel sluggish, experience skin rashes, headaches or an inability to lose weight.
Fibre binds to bile and eliminates it from the body. Bile is manufactured in the liver and holds all the toxins that the liver has processed. If a person has a low fibre diet, the bile and its toxic load not bound in the faeces very well and they are reabsorbed. This can impact us in many ways, here are two examples:
Hormone balance: the liver processes hormones that have been used and packages them up in the bile for excretion. If there is not enough fibre in the gut, the hormones are reabsorbed and can contribute to issues like PMS, acne and oestrogenic cancers.
Heavy metals: The liver normally clears 1% of the body load of mercury every day. However 99% of what is excreted in the bile is often reabsorbed due to insufficient dietary fibre.
- Fibre helps to prevent diabetes and weight gain by keeping blood sugar levels balanced: fibre slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, increases cell sensitivity to insulin and improves the uptake of glucose by the liver. This keeps your blood sugar levels balanced and helps to prevent weight gain.
- Fibre could prevent cancer: studies have indicated that a diet high in fibre can be protective against colorectal and breast cancers.
- Fibre helps manage high cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease: legumes and oats in particular, appear to be effective in lowering total and LDL cholesterol.
- Fibre feeds gut bacteria: Data is now showing that a good diversity of gut bacteria is essential for good health – from immunity to mental health and autoimmune conditions. Gut bacteria feed on fibre, so if we don’t feed them, they will die off which is very bad news for us. In essence, we cannot be healthy without good gut bacteria, so we cannot be healthy on a low fibre diet.
HOW TO GET MORE FIBRE INTO YOUR DIET
The typical western diet is generally low on fibre – foods like pasta, bread, potatoes, dairy and meat make up the majority of plates and have little to no fibre. Therefore, it is not surprising that heart disease, diabetes, colorectal cancer and gut-associated disturbances are on the rise.
The following foods are full of fibre and contribute to a balanced, healthy diet. Remember to eat them whole and unprocessed to get the most fibre.
Vegetables: All vegetables have fibre, which is one of the reasons why people who eat a plant-based diet* tend to have lower levels of chronic conditions and live longer. Remember, much of the fibre resides in the skins, so don’t peel your potatoes, carrots or parsnips – just give them a good scrub and cook as usual.
Artichokes, beetroot, broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts and carrots are particularly high in fibre.
Fruits: Fruits can be very sugary, but fibre helps to slow down the release of the sugar into your blood stream. Apples, pears, prunes, figs and dates have the highest levels of fibre. Fruit juices do not contain much (or any) fibre, so please avoid them.
Legumes: Haricot beans (i.e. baked beans), chickpeas, lentils, black beans and broad beans are brilliant legume sources of fibre. They are also good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. If you are cooking them from dry, remember to soak overnight in warm water with a little acid (lemon juice or vinegar). This helps to pull out enzymes that block the absorption of essential minerals.
Wholegrains: When it comes to grains, always opt for brown/wholegrain options. The fibre in grains tends to in the outer covering, which are removed to make them white (i.e. white bread, white pasta, white rice). When you remove the outer husk, you remove the fibre which means these foods will have a higher glycemic load (i.e. cause havoc with your blood sugar levels). Oats, barley, brown rice, rye, quinoa and spelt are the best grains and full of fibre. Also try to soak grains in warm, acidulated water before cooking.
THE POWER OF PLANTS
The reasons why a plant-based diet is good for us go beyond the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that are important to good health. The fibre that they provide us is invaluable. Imagine a world without fuel for our cars, buses or planes? It would come to a standstill. That is exactly what happens to our bodies without fibre – we literally cannot operate properly without it – we cannot detoxify and our good bacteria cannot survive.
Unlike vitamins, minerals, protein and good fats, there are no real supplement options for fibre, so you really must eat real food to keep your system healthy – there are no shortcuts!
Fibre is essential to overall good health, maintaining energy levels and avoiding lifestyle diseases. Are you getting enough?
Here are some top tips to get more fibre into your diet:
- Add chickpeas, lentils or beans to your soup or stew. Legumes are full of fibre and adding them to stews and soups are a great way to bulk out meat-based dishes and improve the nutrient content of your meal.
- Keep the skin on! Did you know that much of a fruit or vegetable’s fibre content is in the skin? Leave the skin on apples, carrots, parsnips, beetroot, potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash to increase your fibre intake and keep your immune system healthy.
- Get seedy! Seeds are fabulous sources of fibre. They are also full of protein, minerals and healthy fats. Add them to your porridge, smoothie or even bake with them.
- Aim to eat 5-7 portions of vegetables and fruit daily. It may sound like a lot, but fruit and veg are some of the best sources of fibre that provide food for our gut bacteria and help us eliminate toxins. An easy way to add more vegetables to your diet is to use them to replace low fibre carbohydrates like pasta. Try courgette noodles or cauliflower rice!
- Snack with fibre. Instead of the sweet biscuit or cake, choose snacks filled with fibre. Not only are they better for your digestive system, they will also keep your blood sugar levels balanced, giving you more energy. Snack on walnuts, almonds or Brazil nuts or try nut butter on oatcakes or hummus with vegetable sticks.
Check out these fibre-full recipes:
Bircher Muesli (oats, nuts, needs)
Chia Pudding (chia seeds)
Huevos Rancheros (beans, avocados)
Butternut Soup (butternut, skin on)
Sweet Potato Fishcakes (sweet potatoes, oats)
Beetroot hummus (beetroot, chickpeas, tahini)
High Fibre Rusks (nuts, seeds, coconut)
*Plant-based diets are not necessarily vegetarian or vegan diets. They are diets that focus on eating plenty of fresh produce, which may be supplemented with good quality protein and healthy fats.