Fibre: Why You Need It
The term ‘dietary fibre’ actually refers to the parts of plant foods, which escape the usual process of digestion in the small intestine. Instead, dietary fibre moves into the colon (also known as the large intestine), where it is broken down by bacteria. Fibre is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, grains, legumes and nuts. Meat and other animal foods (such as dairy products and eggs) do not naturally contain dietary fibre.
Different types of fibre
There are two major types of dietary fibre, soluble fibre, and insoluble fibre.
Soluble fibre is beneficial to help lower blood cholesterol levels and, in people with diabetes, helps to control blood sugar levels. Soluble fibre is found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, oats, rice and barley.
Insoluble fibre is so called because of its ‘bulking properties’. It helps keep us ‘regular’. Foods containing insoluble fibre include wholegrain and wholemeal wheat-based breads, cereals and pasta.
Why fibre is important
Research has established that a diet high in dietary fibre can provide a number of health benefits. It has been shown to help in the management or prevention of bowel disorders and bowel disease, heart disease, diabetes and weight control.
Bowel health and disease
Apart from its role in the prevention of constipation, dietary fibre can help maintain bowel health in other ways. During the fermentation of fibre by bacteria in the colon, substances called ‘short chain fatty acids’ are produced which help keep the cells of the lower colon healthy. In addition, dietary fibre, particularly the insoluble type, can help reduce the risk of diverticular disease (a condition where pouches form in the wall of the intestine).
The role of dietary fibre in the prevention of colon cancer has long been debated by researchers. The World Cancer Research Fund Report (1997), which examined the findings of over 4,000, published scientific papers, found that dietary fibre may possibly decrease the risk of colon cancer.
The report suggested that other dietary factors (eg. antioxidants) found in high fibre foods (such as fruits, vegetables, cereals and legumes) may contribute to this reduced risk of colon cancer that has been linked with fibre. It is also possible that the short chain fatty acids produced as a result of eating fibre may help prevent against colon cancer.
Diets rich in soluble fibre (particularly from oats) have been shown to reduce heart disease risk by lowering blood cholesterol levels. Research suggests that including legumes (eg. soybeans and chickpeas) oat bran or psyllium can significantly reduce the total and LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ type of cholesterol) levels.
Dietary fibre (in particular, soluble fibre such as that from beans, lentil and oats) can slow the absorption of nutrients from the small intestine4. Slower absorption of sugar/glucose from the small intestine will mean slower rise in blood sugar levels. This is important for people with diabetes who need to avoid sharp peaks and falls in blood sugar levels.
How much fibre do you need?
Dietary surveys show that the average Australian does not eat enough dietary fibre. Most health professionals agree that adults should eat at least 30 grams of fibre each day, for health benefits, some suggest up to 35gms for men and 25-30 for females.
How much food would provide 30 grams of fibre?
It is not difficult to add more fibre to our diets. As an example, the following foods eaten over the day will provide over 30g of dietary fibre.
- · 1 serving of high-fibre breakfast cereal (like Weet-Bix Hibran)
- · 2 slices of wholemeal bread
- · 2 serves of fresh fruit (eg. apple and banana)
- · 3 serves (1/2 cup each) of vegetables (eg. green beans, carrots and broccoli)
- · ½ cup cooked kidney beans
- · 30 g almonds
Tips for getting more fibre
1. The best way to get enough dietary fibre is to regularly eat wholegrain or wholemeal breads and cereals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
2. Choose brown rice, wholemeal pasta, whole grain crispbreads and wheatmeal biscuits.
3. Add legumes to soups, casseroles, salads and sauces.
4. Sprinkle chopped fresh or dried fruits, wheat germ or seeds on breakfast cereal.
5. Eat unpeeled fruits and vegetables wherever possible as the skins are a valuable source of fibre.
6. In general, look on the nutrition panel of food products and choose those which provide at least 1.5 grams of dietary fibre per serve.
It is also important to note that fibre absorbs water, so to further assist the effects of fibre on bowel regularity, be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
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