We are only just beginning to explore the intricacies of how the food we eat interacts with our bodies and in particular, our gut microbiota (the incredible 100 trillion bacteria that live in our digestive system). Fibre is a vital part of what can be called your ‘way of life’ or your daily normal diet (click here to see my previous post on ‘Which diet is best for me?’). The aim of this article is to share the evidence on the benefits of fibre, where we can get it from and how we can apply this to our everyday.
The WHY of FIBRE.
Looking into the importance and benefits of fibre will hopefully encourage you to welcome it into your day wherever and however you can.
FIRST BENEFIT: Fibre has hormonal effects.
What is a hormone and how does it relate to fibre?
The word Hormone is Greek for ‘set in motion’. If you imagine a hormone like a parent on a mission, intent on getting things done; hormones are chemicals that travel to certain organs and exert a specific effect in order to make things happen.
An example is the fascinating hormone Insulin which is remarkably designed to allow the body to utilise sugar/glucose from the food we eat to be used as fuel (sugar is essential for our survival, click here to read more on why). Insulin is able to unlock cells, in effect telling the body to absorb this energy source for immediate use or to store it for later.
How is insulin linked to fibre?
The fibre in your meal adds bulk to your food, which means it takes longer to chew and travel through the body, slowing down the digestive process. This slowing down means that food takes longer to leave the stomach and longer for the digested food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. This results in a delayed release of sugar into the blood and a delayed release of the hormone Insulin.
Why is this so important?
Dr Jason Fung, Canadian kidney specialist describes the action of Insulin similar to the railway guards in Japan called ‘pushers’. The job of these ‘pushers’ is to cram as many people onto the subway trains as they can during peak time. Similarly, Insulin is released by the body after eating highly refined carbohydrates, for example, to ‘push’ the sugar efficiently into our cells. With the sugar now being taken up by the cells, there can be a sudden drop in blood sugar which if persists in some people can cause feelings of hunger, tiredness, fatigue and dizziness- symptoms of what we may call a ‘sugar crash’.
By adding fibre to our meals and slowing down the digestion of carbohydrates into sugar and slowing down its absorption into the bloodstream, we experience a delayed insulin spike resulting in an overall increase in satiety (satisfaction) and a prolonged feeling of fullness.
It is interesting to note here that research shows that dietary fat doesn’t tend to raise blood glucose or spike insulin levels in the same way.
SECOND BENEFIT: Fibre influences the amount of energy (calories) we eat in one meal.
Due to the bulky nature of fibre, fibre containing foods reduce the ‘energy-density’ or calorific content of a meal. This means the number of calories in a fibre-containing meal tends to be less than the same amount of food without fibre.
This twin effect of adding bulk with fewer calories means that your fibre rich meal takes longer to eat and digest AND with fewer calories overall. Studies have shown the benefit of adding fibre to everyday meals can positively help weight management especially when paired with longstanding lifestyle changes.
THIRD BENEFIT: Friendly Short Chain Fatty Acids.
When fermented by the bacteria in the gut, fibre breaks down into fascinating molecules called ‘short chain fatty acids’. These molecules are thought to have beneficial effects on inflammation, maintaining the lining of the gut and are thought to provide energy for the cells that line the colon.
Increasing the quantity of fibre consumed in meals with fruit, vegetables and legumes (beans, lentils, and peas) has been shown to directly increase the levels of these good guys.
Fibre, possibly through the production of these molecules, has been linked to a reduction in the risk of conditions such as Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and bowel cancer (British Dietetic Association, 2018).
The interesting point to note here is when more fibre is included into one’s daily diet, these health benefits and reduced disease risk can be seen regardless of the actual type of diet consumed; be it meat-based diet or vegetarian.
FOURTH BENEFIT: Lowers cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
As with most aspects of the body and its interaction with food, there are fascinating interconnected mechanisms at play; it is rarely a straightforward matter.
How does fibre lower cholesterol?
Cholesterol plays a vital role in our body and is made by the liver. Any excess cholesterol is deposited into the gut via bile; ready to be flushed out with the help of plant-rich fibrous foods. When our diets are deficient in fibre, there is a slowing down of this digestive flow and rather than being excreted, some unwanted cholesterol can be reabsorbed into the blood with less being removed from the body.
Studies also suggest that fibre’s overall lowering of insulin, discussed previously, may impact on the liver and reduce production of cholesterol.
There may also be an association with the friendly good guys, the Short Chain Fatty acids, we met earlier whose increased production may also interact with the liver and reduce its production of cholesterol.
Can fibre lower blood pressure?
A number of clinical trials conducted to evaluate the influence of fibre intake on blood pressure have shown that there may be a possible beneficial link, however, it was seen over 8 weeks and linked to longer sustainable changes in fibre content of the daily diet.
How Much FIBRE should we be eating?
Currently, adults in the UK are consuming around:
16g of fibre.
Current government guidelines for adults state that we should:
Aim for 30g of fibre daily.
Taken from NHS guidelines, it is thought that children and teenagers may be getting less than 15g per day:
- 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
NOTE OF CAUTION:
As with anything, too much, too quickly is not practical or beneficial for your body and can result in intestinal gas, bloating and cramping.
Gradually increase the fibre content of one meal in the day- perhaps dinner and then slowly and mindfully incorporate more fibre in each meal until it becomes part of your ‘Way of Living‘ or normal diet.
Results are more achievable if they slow and sustained over a long enough period of time to become second nature and allow your body, your family, your shopping list, your meal planning and your cooking to slowly evolve to accept these new additions.
What are the best sources of fibre?
Plant-based whole foods.
Fruits, vegetables and wholegrain starchy foods (NHS, 2018) beans, lentils and peas.
Tips on incorporating more fibre into your everyday:
START WHERE YOU ARE.
Aim to ADD to your normal daily way of eating rather than replace or take away from what you are eating now.
- Try oats for breakfast as porridge, muesli or overnight oats soaked in milk.
- Adding milled linseeds to your normal breakfast, to your cereal or smoothie or sprinkle on your normal toast topping is a quick and easy win.
- Choose whole fruit rather than the juice to keep the fibre intact.
- Add a smoothie made of greens (click here for more on benefit of greens) and some fruit, with milk or yoghurt and perhaps throw in those linseeds.
- Try adding wholemeal bread to your way of eating. Choose a homemade or shop bought wholemeal sandwich at lunch with carrot sticks and hummus.
- Asparagus is an easy snack with hummus or on its own.
- Choose a shop bought or homemade vegetable soup with some wholemeal/ rye bread.
- Add wholemeal pasta with varied colourful vegetables in the sauce
- Add pulses such as baked beans and lentils to dishes
- Add extra vegetables such as peas, beans or grated carrots or courgettes to sauces such as bolognaise, curry and chilli
- Keep a supply of frozen prepared vegetables to throw into meals if in a rush, especially peas and frozen spinach that disappear into most curries, stews and pasta sauces.
- Leave the skin on vegetables and fruit but wash very carefully.
- Garlic, onions, leeks and artichokes have beneficial fibre. Look to cycle these foods through your week.
Take Home Message:
Start where you are. Fibre is hugely beneficial to our diet for so many reasons.
The biggest revelation to me whilst researching this post is that just by ADDING FIBRE to any diet we can make a difference without the need to overhaul your entire diet and rethink paleo, keto, vegan or vegetarian.
Start where you are. I cannot stress that enough.
Start with one meal and slowly incorporate more fibre into your everyday.
Try varying the type and colour of the vegetables you eat from week to week (I find this easier than trying to vary it on a daily basis).
Eat from the RAINBOW, look at your shopping list to see how you can add different colours in each week with the greens of spinach, peas and kale, beetroot, carrots, cabbage and sweet potatoes as examples.
Try to have 5+ portions of fruit and vegetables a day (more vegetables if possible); with a portion of fruit at breakfast with some protein, maybe a smoothie, some vegetable sticks at lunch and vegetables added to your dinner. Perhaps some apples or oranges incorporated into a healthy dessert with yoghurt and seeds.
With the incredible scientific research going on around us, we are only just starting to understand the fascinating way our bodies interact with our environment and the food we eat.
My aim is to empower you with the knowledge we have now and with one small achievable step at a time, we can make a difference and lead a more healthful life starting where we are.
We can do this.
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