What is Fibre and Why is it Important for Health

posted in: General Nutrition, Nutrition | 0

You may recall growing up hearing your parents tell you to eat your greens, and that brown bread is healthy for you. You may have not been too happy with those requests, but you should know, they had good intentions. Fruit, veggies and whole-grain foods aren’t only a good source of vitamins and minerals, but fibre too. Fibre is extremely important for your health. You may know it as being important to kick your gut into action and get things moving along so to speak. But there are lots of other health benefits too. Let’s take a deeper dive into what fibre actually is, how it works and why it is so important for you to eat daily.

What is Fibre?

Dietary fibre refers to the complex carbohydrates found in plant-based foods. It is the part of the plant that our bodies are not able to fully breakdown or digest. This is unlike the sugar and starch from carbohydrates. Fibre is classed as either insoluble or soluble fibre. In short, insoluble fibre help your stools to soften and make it easier to pass them. Soluble fibre is good for digestion, but also cholesterol and blood sugar. It is important to note, that it is important to drink plenty of water and fluids, which help fibre work its magic.

These two types of fibre react differently when we eat them. Foods such as nuts and whole-grains contain mostly insoluble fibre. Whereas soluble fibre is mostly found in oats and fruits. However, it is important to remember that most fibre-rich foods contain a combination of both soluble and insoluble fibre and both have important roles to play in the gut’s health and your overall health.

What is the Difference Between Soluble and Insoluble Fibre?

Insoluble Fibre

This includes cellulose and hemicellulose. It is the type of fibre that cannot be broken down. It doesn’t soften, is unable to dissolve in water and cannot be digested fully by our small intestine. It takes action while in your large colon, and absorbs water into your stools. The water helps to soften your stools making them pass more smoothly in the colon, and making it easier to pass when you go to the toilet. This is important to help prevent constipation and haemorrhoids. It also works to slow down the rate at which foods are digested and in doing so wards off our hunger pangs and cravings.

Soluble Fibre

Soluble fibre includes gums and pectins. It works in an opposite way to insoluble fibre. It is able to be broken down or dissolve in water. It breaks down quickly in a liquid-like gel and supports the good bacteria in our digestive system. Once soluble fibre reaches the colon, it is transformed into a thick gel which helps to prevent the absorption of fatty substances like cholesterol. Apart from helping to lower cholesterol, it can also help with lowering blood sugar too. And in addition, it can even help in instances of diarrhoea, as it can help to thicken the stools making them less watery.

What foods contain soluble and insoluble fibre?

Many complex carbohydrates contain both soluble and insoluble fibre. Some may contain more of one than the other, but you will almost always get some of both. Both insoluble and soluble fibre count towards your daily fibre intake.

Food GroupInsoluble FibreSoluble Fibre
FruitAny fruits with a peel or skin you can eat or edible seeds. Examples include berries, apple with skin, cooked prunesMostly found in the flesh of the fruit. Examples include bananas, pears, nectarines, figs, apricots, flesh of apple,
VegetablesCarrots, potato and parsnips; peas, cucumber, celery, courgettes, cauliflower, green beans and green spinachBrussel sprouts, avocado, broccoli, peas, and root vegetables such as sweet potato, turnips, carrots.
LegumesBeans, lentils and chickpeas Beans, lentils and chickpeas
Whole-grainsWheat bran, brown rice, couscous, quinoa and popcornOats, oat bran, barley, nuts and seeds, flaxseeds, psyllium

What are the Benefits of Fibre?

Fibre has many important roles to play in the gut. Apart from the obvious bowel health, it can help prevent or improve certain lifestyle diseases. There is plenty of research that proves the health outcomes of fibre, although there is constantly ongoing research looking into more benefits. The main advantages of having a fibre-rich diet include (1):

  • Maintains bowel health, keeping stools regular and prevent constipation and haemorrhoids
  • Insoluble fibre can help good bacteria to grow (2)
  • Lowers risk of bowel cancer
  • Helping to lower cholesterol levels, therefore improving heart health
  • May help maintain healthy blood pressure
  • Helping to improve blood sugar levels, which is important in diabetics
  • As this helps with blood sugar, it, therefore, helps to sustain your energy levels, avoiding spikes of energy surges
  • Can assist in maintaining a healthy weight
  • Can make you feel more full and less likely to overeat and snack
  • Helps you live longer

Is Dietary Fibre Roughage?

You may have heard fibre referred to by the umbrella term ‘roughage’ in the past. That’s now considered quite a misleading label because fibre comes in two separate forms, one of which isn’t at all rough. Both soluble and insoluble fibre count towards your recommended daily intake of 30 grams of fibre per day, but most of us don’t consume enough (3). If you are hoping to up your intake, it’s important to know what types of carbohydrates are good sources of dietary fibre.

Are Simple or Complex Carbohydrates Higher in Fibre?

The complex carbohydrates which make up dietary fibre are not the same as simple carbohydrates. They are less sweet, take longer to digest and release energy slowly. Complex carbohydrates are found in fruit and vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts. These are much higher in fibre than simple sugars which may have little to none. Simple carbohydrate include those found in sugar, milk and fruit juice. They pass through our digestive system quickly and provide a swift boost of energy. With the exception of milk and dairy, it is best to limit simple sugary foods. By consuming a range of complex carbohydrates, in particular, you’ll be contributing to having a well-balanced diet that supports better long-term health.

How can I Include More Fibre in My Meals?

It is important to include fibre (both soluble and insoluble) for our overall health. Therefore it’s a good idea to incorporate this in your regular diet or meal intake. Supplements are available to help, but foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, nuts and seeds should be a big part of your daily meals.

If you are planning to increase your intake of dietary fibre it’s worth starting with one or two new foods and then building up your intake gradually (4). This gives your system time to adjust, so you are less likely to experience digestive problems. At the same time remember to drink plenty of water, as this maximises the positive effects of dietary fibre. 

Tips to increase your fibre intake

  • If eating cereal, choose a high-fibre option such as oats, bran flakes, Weetabix, granola or muesli. Make sure that the granola and muesli isn’t too high in sugar and fat if you are trying to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Include fruit or vegetables with every meal. Fruit is easier to have with breakfast, as a snack or as dessert. Vegetables are easier to include with lunch or dinner and should make up half your plate. You can have vegetables with breakfast such as tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms in an omelette. They can also be a snack such as veggie sticks with hummus. You should be aiming for a minimum of (5).
  • Choose whole-grain options over white, processed options. Opting for brown or whole-grain bread or crackers, wild or brown rice, whole grain pasta, and grains such as couscous and quinoa are good high-fibre carbohydrate options to have with your meal.
  • Add legumes such as beans, lentils or chickpeas to a meal. This can be a vegetarian meal which you should aim to have 2-3 times a week at the least, or be included with a meal such as adding lentils to mince for a cottage pie.
  • Dried fruit and juice should be had in moderation as they are higher in sugar than fresh fruit. But juice such as prune juice can help the gut if things are a little slow.
  • Good snack suggestions apart from fruit and veggie sticks include wholegrain or oat crackers, and unsalted nuts and seeds.

Is it Bad to Eat Too Much Fibre?

Although it is hard to achieve, there is such a thing as too much fibre. Like with everything, fibre-rich foods should be eaten in moderation, as long as you are nearing your 30 grams for the day. Most people struggle to meet even half of their intake, but for people that love foods that happen to be very high in fibre, this can become problematic.

If you eat too much fibre, you may experience symptoms such as bloating in your abdomen and gassiness. This can be uncomfortable and sometimes be painful. If you do experience these problems, drinking plenty of water can help. You may also want to reduce your overall fibre intake. Seek medical advice if this becomes common or gets worse.

If you are not used to having much fibre, even if you only have 10 grams a day, increasing this can still lead to symptoms of having too much fibre. In most cases, your intake won’t be near the recommended limit as most people find this difficult to achieve. If you are trying to increase your fibre intake, increase this slowly over times adding a little more to your meals day by day.

The Final Word

Fibre, both soluble and insoluble have important roles to play in gut health, lowering cholesterol and blood sugar and weight control. It should be included in everymeal, in the form of fruit and vegetables. Inclduing wholegrains and legumes will also help to increase this. Along with fibre, you should always drink plenty of water to help it work well.