Think fibre has all the sex appeal of thermals and Crocs? You’d be right. But with benefits that prove this F-word is a health powerhouse, it’s certainly getting experts hot and bothered...
Foods can possess a certain, well, sexiness. Some have it in spades (chocolate, berries... Oh, avocado, you fox), while others are forever destined to sit on a spare plate just outside the Instagram shot.
Roughage. Bulk. Fibre is many things, but culinary porn it is not. Perhaps that’s why, despite the relative ease of doing so, the vast majority of us fall short of getting our fill. But, despite fibre’s bland rep, this classic’s getting a makeover.
“Fibre is number one on the radar of nutrition professionals right now,” says registered nutritionist Jennie Gough. “Many women don’t realise the importance of including more fibre in their diet. This is concerning because [fibre] has significant benefits for health and wellbeing.”
It’s estimated that the average person is eating around 20g a day, despite the Dietitians Association of Australia recommending 25–30g. That said, nutrition evangelists are going nuts for the stuff. Scientists are travelling the world to research the effects of fibre on the body, while 2017 research by Nutrition Research Australia suggests if we all added just one serve of high-fibre grain food to our diets daily, it could help prevent 64,000 cases of cardiovascular disease and 126,000 cases of type 2 diabetes a year.
The incredible bulk
Think you’ve got fibre sussed? Doubtful – it’s a complex little number with more layers than a serving of Viennetta. “The term ‘fibre’ describes the non-digestible plant-based carbs in your diet,” says consultant colorectal surgeon Simon Bach. “There are different forms of carbs – starch, which is long chains of glucose; and non-starch polysaccharides, which are long chains of other sugars (non-glucose). It is these non-starch polysaccharides that make up the fibre in your diet.
But the way we refer to fibre has changed as understanding of the human body has developed. For decades, health professionals spoke of soluble fibre (which dissolves to form a liquid carried through the gut wall into the body) and insoluble fibre (which remains in your bowels, increasing the bulk and softness of your waste). More recently, though, experts have phased out these terms because of inconsistencies in the ways the types of fibre react in the body. Now, both sit under the umbrella term of ‘dietary fibre’.
Still with us? The fibre passed into the large intestine intact is processed by the microbiome in the gut. These bacteria break down the fibre and use the resulting carbs as energy, but they also pump out short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) as a by-product.
Your bit of rough
It’s this last stage of the process, the goings-on in the gut, that’s getting researchers’ rocks off. “We’re learning more about the knock-on benefits that come from maintaining the health of the gut lining,” says Professor Gary Frost, chair of nutrition and dietetics at Imperial College London. “And, because of the role that it plays in this, the importance of fibre, too.”
Back to those SCFAs. A growing body of research is pointing to their disease-fighting anti-inflammatory properties as the reason fibre is so good at future-proofing your health. In the past year, studies have highlighted the role of fibre in (ready?) building stronger bones, protecting bowel health, reducing risk of osteoarthritis and lowering cholesterol. And you can add to that older research into fibre’s role in breast cancer prevention and strengthening immunity.
Future-proofing aside, eating more fibre could also benefit your immediate health. It comes down to the role fibre plays in weight loss. Studies have pointed to the principle that fibre absorbs more water and breaks down at a slower rate than other nutrients, keeping blood sugar levels steady and you feeling fuller for longer. Those SCFAs have a part to play, too, by encouraging specific cells to release appetite-suppressing hormones, such as peptide YY.
It’s not all bran
While you’re probably well versed on what constitutes a carb, fibre is a bit foggier. “High-fibre foods are those that contain at least 6g fibre per 100g, while those that contain at least 3g are a ‘source’ of fibre,” explains registered dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine.
Remember, you’re aiming for 25–30g a day. So, how can you up your intake? Ludlam-Raine suggests adding handfuls of frozen veg to meals, swapping chips for nuts, seeds and popcorn, and using wholemeal flour in your baking. And if you’re peeling all your veg, take note. “Fibre is found in the cell wall, where it provides structural support for the plant,” says Gough. “The peel is a rich source of fibre so, by eating fruit and veg with the skin on, you’ll get more of the benefits. When it comes to drinks, juicing removes more fibre than blending, but with smoothies it’s still broken down, so has less benefit than if you were simply to eat the whole fruit.”
Before you make a pit stop at the farmers’ market, listen up. “Going from no fibre at all to a lot of fibre could put a strain on your digestive system,” warns Ludlam-Raine. This could lead to a blockage situation or, at the other end of the spectrum, you know, the shits. To swerve such issues, increase the amount of fibre in your diet gradually, while upping your fluid intake at the same time. And if your gut has a low tolerance for, well, anything, consult a dietitian as to the best sources of fibre for you. “Certain fibre-containing foods can trigger symptoms of IBS,” says Gough. “For sufferers, I would suggest spreading fibre across your meals and focusing on foods like oatmeal, barley and fruits, including berries, mangoes and oranges, which should be better tolerated.”
If you can handle fibre-rich foods, experts say diversity is key. Study after study points to the health benefits of a diverse microbiome, so, next time you’re browsing the supermarket, go with your gut.
This article originally appeared in the August issue of Women's Health