Dietary fibre: the unsung health hero

Colourful fruit, vegetables and grains

Did you know the process of digesting food (getting its goodness) begins the second we start chewing it? That is, for everything except fibre. Dietary fibre, also known as ‘roughage’ is more than a superfood, it’s a superhero. You know, quiet, unassuming day clothes yet potent and always delivers on the goods!

Take a deep breath and read this impressively long list of fibre’s hero credentials. Fibre provides us a host of benefits, including the potential to reduce the risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease, obesity and gut issues such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulitis. Dietary fibre also has the potential to reduce cholesterol, improve blood glucose control and promote weight loss.

But first, there’s a problem: and it’s not fibre

Most Australians are missing the mark when it comes to the amount of fibre they consume daily. With only 28% of adults and 42% of children consuming an adequate amount of fibre every day, we could all do with upping our daily fibre intake.

According to Sherridan Cluff, Public Health Nutritionist from Health and Wellbeing Queensland, increasing your fibre intake is easy to do.

“Fibre can be found in vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes like chickpeas and lentils. Prioritise eating these guys and you’re well on your way to increasing your fibre intake—and gaining all the benefits,” Sheridan said.

Six tips for getting more fibre into your day

1. Focus on veggies and fruit and avoid the juicer and peeler
Hold off on peeling your veggies and fruit where possible. The skin of fruit and vegetables is a great source of insoluble fibre and keeping it on is an easy way to boost your intake. Always think before you juice. Whilst consuming vegetables and fruit in any form is beneficial, blending or juicing them starts to break down the fibre, meaning less fibre reaches the intestines. For example, there is 3.5g of fibre in a medium orange, and only 0.2g of fibre in half a cup of fresh orange juice without pulp.

2. Choose wholemeal and wholegrain options
Switching to wholemeal or wholegrain pasta, bread, rice, flour, crackers and crisp breads will see your overall dietary fibre intake increase by around 50%. Wholegrains include foods such as rice, oats, quinoa, barley, polenta and buckwheat. An easy way to increase your intake is to substitute the flour in your favourite recipes for wholemeal flour.

3. Keep an eye on labels
You can easily scope out high fibre foods in the supermarket by looking at the nutrition information panel on the back of packaged food. This is especially helpful when choosing grainy foods like bread, cereal and crispbreads. Look for foods with more than 5g of fibre per 100g. The higher the fibre content the better. Not all labels include fibre, so if you can’t find it listed on the nutrition information panel, check the ingredients list. Does the product contain cereals, grains, seeds, nuts, and/or fruit? If so, there is a good chance you are holding a fibre-rich food.

4. Added help
There are several high-fibre ingredients you can add to your everyday meals to boost your daily intake of fibre. Chia seeds, sunflower seeds, psyllium husk or bran are great to add cereals, smoothies, soups, stews or casseroles. You could also add legumes like chickpeas or lentils into pasta sauces, casseroles and salads. For a great snack option, lean on nuts: great on their own, with a piece of fruit, or added to yoghurt.

5. Top it up gradually
You don’t have to completely change your diet to get more fibre into your day—start slowly and gradually introduce high fibre options over time. It is best to increase fibre slowly, aiming to add in one new high fibre food approximately every 2-3 days. Also ensure to drink enough water to assist in the digestion of fibre.

6. Water, water, water
When you increase fibre in your diet ensure you drink the recommended amount of water each day (8 cups of water for women and 10 cups for men), or you may experience abdominal discomfort. Things may not feel very comfortable without enough water to ahh keep things moving along. So, drink up! Water that is.

How much fibre do we need?

According to Sherridan, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend the daily dietary fibre intake of 25g for women and 30g for men. Children as young as four should consume 18g of fibre each day, with their requirements increasing as they get older.

“The good news is, when consuming a wide variety of healthy foods, it is easy to meet the dietary guidelines for fibre and reap the benefits of this hero nutrient.”

“Getting the right amount of fibre into your day is as easy as eating a serve of wholegrain cereal, two pieces of fruit, a handful of nuts, a salad sandwich on grainy bread, and a veggie packed main meal,” Sheridan said.

What 30 grams of fibre looks like

Image taken from BBC article, The Lifesaving food 90% aren’t eating enough of. Data source, Auckland University of Technology, Professor Elaine Rush.

The low-down on fibre

Fibre passes from our mouths, into our stomachs and through the small intestine largely unchanged. By the time fibre reaches our large intestine it has grouped together to form what we know as the ‘bulk’, which accelerates ‘transit’ through the gut – AKA keeps us regular.

The Queensland Government define fibre as the edible parts of plants that are not digested or absorbed in the small bowel.

Our food provides different types of fibre which all have unique roles and benefits to our health.

Soluble fibre:

As the name suggests, soluble fibre dissolves easily and helps to form a thick gel in the intestine, slowing down digestion and helping us to feel fuller for longer. Foods higher in soluble fibre include fruits and vegetables, beans (like kidney beans), lentils and oats.

Insoluble fibre:

Insoluble fibre absorbs water from the intestine to help soften the roughage of the bowels. It’s found in wholemeal, wholegrain or high-fibre cereals, the outer skins of fruit and vegetables, and in nuts and seeds.

Resistant starch:

Resistant starch feeds the healthy bacteria in our intestines and helps to promote gut health. Common sources of resistant starch include cooked and cooled rice, slightly unripe bananas and barley.

Inspired to up your fibre? Try these recipes

If you’re looking for inspiration for fibre packed meals, check out these tasty options:

Beetroot hommus dip
Bircher muesli
Sweet potato cheese muffins
Bean & veggie pasta
Family favourite apricot chicken
Cous-cous stuffed capsicums
Sweetcorn and zucchini potato cakes

Stick to our six tips to increase fibre in your diet and you too can reap its superhero benefits.

Main image credit: Photo by Yulia Matvienko on Unsplash