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Finding Fibre

It can cut early death risk by 30 per cent – yet 90 per cent of us aren’t getting enough of it. David Hughes looks at the latest fuss about fibre

When we were kids, most of us behaved as though all essential nutrients could be obtained from chocolate and ice cream. Part of growing up involves coming to terms with the fact that, regrettably, this is not so.

Yet we haven’t lost our taste for food which is sweet, enjoyable to eat, and easy to prepare – and in today’s fast-moving world, a whole industry has grown up to supply just that. However, while pre-packaged meals may have made our lives easier, they may, according to latest research, also be making those lives shorter.

The convenience of popping a ready-to-heat meal in the microwave or oven is offset by its probable lack of fibre, an essential if unglamorous ingredient which researchers who tracked 40 years of dietary habits are now warning us can have a major impact on our health and longevity.

Scientists at the universities of Dundee, in Scotland, and Otago, New Zealand, caused a stir earlier this year by warning that their review of 185 studies and 58 clinical trials spanning several decades had revealed that eating enough fibre can significantly reduce the chances of heart attack, stroke, bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, as well as helping to normalise weight.

Overall, the researchers estimated a 30 per cent reduced risk of early death for those eating around 30g (one ounce) of fibre per day.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that only one in ten of us is actually doing so On average, it seems, women consume about 17g of fibre per day, and men 21g.

Fibre, contained in such items as fruit, vegetables, wholemeal bread, grains and nuts, used to be dismissed as more or less nature’s packaging, useful for delivering nutrients but unable to be easily digested itself, and liable to simply go straight through the body. Leaving it out of our diet didn’t seem any problem, and the trend for low-carb meals made it look like the way forward.

What fibre does

The experts admit that changing our dietary habits to include more fibre is challenging. “It’s a big change for people,” Professor John Cummings, one of the researchers, told the BBC.

Yet he added: “We have this organ set up to digest fibre, which most people just don’t use very much.”

To motivate dietary change, it helps to understand what fibre actually does for us, given that the action takes place in the intestines, and is a murky business for those of us who just about grasp that food is digested in the stomach.

There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre, which dissolves in water, is found in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium, among other things (so drinking enough water is important when increasing our fibre intake).

This fibre provides food for the myriad friendly bacteria in the gut and intestines, which convert it into short-chain fatty acids. These are the main source of energy for cells lining the colon, and are also instrumental in reducing inflammation and high cholesterol, lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. Fibre also makes us feel full, helping curb obesity.

Insoluble fibre, found in such foods as wholegrain bread, bran, nuts, beans and vegetables, promotes the movement of material through the digestive system, and combats constipation.

Easy does it

On a practical note, nutritionists advise that if we are to increase our fibre intake, it’s best to do so gradually, over a number of weeks, to give gut bacteria time to adjust to the change. Otherwise some abdominal bloating or cramps might result.

There seems no doubt, however, that the advantages of making that change, and eating a healthy amount of fibre, is solidly supported by wide and long-term evidence.

“The health benefits of fibre are supported by more than 100 years of research into its chemistry, physical properties, physiology and effects on metabolism,” says Professor Jim Mann of the University of Otego, the lead author of the recent study.

We’ll be hearing more about how much fibre we should eat – the Otago/Dundee study was done for the World Health Organisation, which is preparing official guidelines on fibre, to be available next year.

Fibre-rich foods include:
  • Wholegrain breakfast pasta, wholegrain bread and oats, barley and rye.
  • Fruit such as berries, pears, melon and oranges
  • Vegetables like broccoli, carrots and sweetcorn
  • Peas, beans and pulses
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Potatoes with skin.
How to get 30g of fibre in your daily diet:
  • Fibre at breakfast: Two thick slices of wholemeal toasted bread (6.5g of fibre) topped with one sliced banana (1.4g) and a samll glass of fruit smoothie frink (1.5g) will five you around 9.4g of fibre.
  • Fibre at lunch: A baked jacket potato with the skin on (2.6g) with a 200g portion of reduced-sugar and reduced-salt baked beans in tomato sauce (9.8g) followed by an apple (1.2g) will give you aroung 13.6g of fibre.
  • Fibre at dinner: Mixed vegetable tomato-based curry cooked with onion and spices (3.3g) with wholegrain rice (2.8g) followed by a lower-fat fruit yoghurt (0.4g) will give you around 6.5g of fibre. Bear in mind that fruit yoghurts can sometimes be high in added sugars, so check the label and try to choose lower-sugar versions.
  • Fibre as a snack: A small handful of nuts can have up to 3g of fibre. Make sure you choose unsalted nuts, such as plain almonds without added sugars. 
  • Total: Around 32.5g of fibre
Tips to increase your fibre intake

It's important to get fibre from a variety of sources, as eating too much of one type of food may not provide you with a healthy balanced diet. 

To increase your fibre intake you could:

  • Choose a higher-fibre breakfast cereal such as plain wholewheat biscuits (like Weetabix) or plain shredded whole grain (such as Shredded Wheat), or porridge: oats are also a good source of fibre
  • Go for wholemeal or granary breads, or higher-fibre white bread, and choose wholegrains like wholewheat pasta, bulgur wheat or brown rice
  • Go for potatoes with their skins on, such as baked potato or boiled new potatoes
  • Add pulses like beans, lentils or chickpeas to stews, curries and salads
  • Include plenty of vegetables with meals, either as a side dish or added to sauces, stews or curried
  • Have some fresh or dried fruit, or fruit canned in natural juice for dessert. Because dried fruit is sticky, it can increase the risk of tooth decay, so it's better if it is only eaten as part of a meal, rather than as a between-meal snack
  • For snacks, try fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, rye crackers, oatcakes and unsalted nuts or seeds. 

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