Fibre: Improving your digestive health

Fibre. If I had a chance to say just one thing about fibre it would be ‘eat more’.

Fibre was traditionally known as roughage. Dietary fibre is the part of plants that can be eaten but which is resistant to digestion and absorption in the small intestine. Fibre is associated with digestive health and studies show that there are other health benefits, but 80% of people in the UK fail to eat enough fibre for good health.

Simply put, fibre consists of two different types of plant material based on its water solubility:

  • Soluble fibre – this type of fibre can be partially digested, forming a thick gel in the gut. There are health benefits because it helps food move along, lowers cholesterol by binding to it in the gut, and slows down the rate at which sugar enters the bloodstream. Sources: oats, barley, lentils,beans, pulses, fruits and vegetables
  • Insoluble fibre – this is fibre that the body is unable to digest and it promotes satiety (it fills us up which may help with weight management). It can also prevent constipation because it soaks up water as it passes through the gut, bulks out stools and increases transit time. Sources: wholemeal bread, brown rice, bran cereals, wheat bran, skins lentils, seeds of fruits, vegetables, nuts

In the UK it is recommended that we eat 18-25 grams of fibre a day, including soluble and insoluble fibre. To do this we can eat a variety of foods, especially grain and cereal foods and fruits and vegetables (tip: eat the skin for extra fibre). Also, we can check the nutrition label on food packets to make sure that the foods we think are wholefoods (like breakfast cereals) contain at least 3 grams of fibre per 100g. Choose foods containing more than 6 grams of fibre per 100g for food that is high in fibre. Rather than eating more food, simply swap your current choices for a higher fibre option (such as choosing wholemeal bread instead of white bread).

If our diets contain insufficient dietary fibre we may suffer symptoms of digestive discomfort, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, flatulence, irregularity and constipation. In the longer term this discomfort may result in poor physiological and psychological well-being and intestinal ill-health.

It may be necessary to build up your fibre intake slowly. Too much fibre, particularly soluble fibre, may cause wind and bloating, though such symptoms are likely to be temporary (about 2 weeks). Excess insoluble fibre (such as extra bran on cereal) can interfere with the absorption of iron and zinc. Also, when increasing your fibre intake be sure to drink plenty of fluids – at least eight cups a day. People with any digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, should seek advice from a specialist healthcare provider, such as a Dietitian or GP.

Having just checked my cupboards I was glad to see that my breakfast foods are high in fibre – muesli 9g/100g and shredded wheat 7.5g/100g. The bread I use for lunch has 9.7g/100g. In addition I eat fruits and vegetables throughout the day so I should be getting plenty of dietary fibre.

So say ‘hello’ to fibre and goodbye to digestive discomfort. Simply eat lots of fruits and vegetables (skin on) and keep an eye on the nutrition labels of your food packets, remembering to try to choose some higher fibre options (at least 3g/100g) next time you go to the supermarket.

Adapted from information published by BDA and SACN. See NHS Choices for more information.

Bowel Cancer Awareness month (April 2015)

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