We hear the word fibre all the time, but what actually is it and is it really as important as what people say? Yep, it really is. I dare say it’s actually far more important than we even currently know.
Despite constantly being told by manufacturers and the front label of cereals and breads that we need to consume a high fibre diet, the extent of its impact on human health is not extremely well understood. The current basic knowledge on fibre is that it helps us bulk our stools and keep us regular but it’s involved in so many other important functions that get overlooked. I feel that if it had been given the attention it deserved from the very beginning and our health advisors were educated on its role in the body, we wouldn’t see so much chronic disease. That’s how important fibre really is. Anyone who follows me on social media knows I’m constantly talking about fibre but I promise it’s for good reason. Please let me tell you why.
Fibre is a structural component of plants and it's found in plant foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Fibre is not digested after we consume it. It remains unabsorbed as it passes through our digestive system and mops up toxins, waste products and any unwanted excesses. Let me say that again. It makes its way through our body and takes with it chemicals, toxins and any unwanted substances. It is the real detox deal. It even takes unwanted cholesterol particles which is why it has such large links to preventing heart disease. With heart disease being one of the largest killers of all time, you can see why I feel its use has been overlooked.
Due to this action of fibre passing through our digestive system, it helps us bulk up our stools and is vital for healthy elimination and detoxification.
Fibre’s also incredibly important for our gut bacteria. Whilst probiotics seem to be the go to treatment for most gut related conditions, they do not play the only part in changing the state of our microbiome.
Certain fibres are the food our bacteria need to ferment and create a healthy environment. Whilst I fully support the prescription of probiotics and prescribe them often myself, I always explain to my clients that changing the state of our microbiome doesn't just involve popping capsules and supplementing bacteria. We also need to feed the bacteria. We can do this by reducing inflammation-causing foods, increasing fermented foods and most importantly, consuming adequate amounts of fibre. Its role is irreplaceable and probiotics are only achieving one part of the job. Having a healthy microbiome is 100% important so let’s not forget what fuels it. Some fibres contain prebiotics, which are compounds that ferment in the colon and positively change our gut microflora. Our colon and its counterparts is one of the most diversely colonised and active organs in the human body (containing trillions of micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and yeasts) and prioritising its health and activity has positive repercussions for the whole body. Namely, the health of our colon impacts our immune system (as the majority of our immune cells actually live in our gut), our hormonal health (certain bacteria help metabolise hormones when they are in excess), our skin health, neurotransmitter production and more.
Since fibre is indigestible, it virtually contains no calories that can be utilised by the human body.
Food manufacturers jumped on the high fibre bandwagon and started fortifying their food with unnatural sources of fibre. Just keep in mind that a fibre supplement, drug or a fibre fortified bread doesn’t necessarily mean the fibre is doing the same thing as a natural, plant-based fibre source. Artificial fibres aren’t always well tolerated by the body and the food its being added to might lack the nutrients that fibre foods contain.
It’s so easy to get fibre from real sources just the way nature intended - so endeavour to do that instead. When you read this list of foods that contain great sources of fibre, you’ll see how easy it is to achieve once you’re aware of it. The problem is that daily intake of fruits, vegetables and plant foods is just not being prioritised.
Medical literature suggests that eating a low intake of fibre is associated with an increased risk of colon, breast, ovary, endometrial and gastrointestinal cancer. To cut a long biochemical story short, there needs to be sufficient fibre mopping up toxins and unwanted particles in our digestive system, otherwise, they can cause damage to cells and start the inflammatory cascade. That's where we may say hi to chronic disease. Fibre-rich foods are also extremely nutrient dense, which is cancer preventative alone.
There’s another way fibre is cancer protective and it’s via the production of compounds called short-chain fatty acids. These are produced when fibre ferments in our colon. They not only help us metabolise important nutrients but they’re extremely anti-inflammatory for our gut. So many conditions are characterised by chronic inflammation in the bowels, so ensuring short-chain fatty acids are being produced via fibre intake always needs to be a priority. Low levels of short-chain fatty acid production have been linked to all kinds of worsened symptoms in inflammatory bowel disorders such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. When intestinal tissue is being so dramatically damaged from poor food choices, medications, stress, alcohol, smoking etc, short-chain fatty acids really are Superman turning up in a cape.
Research also shows that patients with Crohn’s disease were able to go into remission with increased short-chain fatty acid production. That is incredible and could potentially be a management technique for the debilitating condition that is Crohn's disease.
But let’s get back to cancer prevention. One particular short-chain fatty acid, called butyrate, has been found to help keep colon cells healthy, is associated with the prevention of tumor cell growth and can encourage cancer cell destruction in the colon. If that’s not amazing enough, animal studies have shown us that cancer development may be significantly reduced with sufficient short-chain fatty acid production and a healthy bacterial environment.
Fibre and short-chain fatty acid production has also found to be useful in diabetes and insulin resistance. Consuming the recommended amount of fibre has the potential to slow down the rate at which we absorb glucose, has a role in the prevention of weight gain and fibre rich foods increase the amount of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants in the diet, all of which contribute to the prevention of diabetes.
It is well noted in literature that fibre is important for bowel regularity. This is primarily due to fibre's ability to increase the weight of your stool. Larger stools increase the ease and comfort around passing a stool and reduce the time between making trips to the bathroom. Having a high fibre diet is in most cases an effective treatment for constipation.
Now do you understand why I feel all our health advisors need to be well versed in fibre?
So where do we get it?
Processed breakfast cereals right? Ideally not.
Firstly, there are many different kinds of fibre and they don’t all have the same function. One type of fibre-rich food won't possess all the benefits I’ve just mentioned, so it’s so unbelievably important that we get a diverse range of plant foods in our diet. There’s cellulose, hemicellulose, lignins, pectins, gums, beta-glucans, resistant starches, fructans and chitin. Some are fermentable, some do the mopping up and excretion of toxins, some bind to excessive cholesterol, some produce short-chain fatty acids, some slow the rate of our glucose absorption and others feed our beneficial bacteria what they need to thrive on. As we can see, fibre is extremely medicinal and we need all of it.
The good news is that most plant foods contain fibre but there are some definite standouts:
-Whole grains: brown rice, rye, barley and oats.
-Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, peas and beans
-Vegetables: asparagus, onion, garlic, leek, artichokes, tomato, root vegetables, cabbage family vegetables, potatoes that have been cooked and then cooled, celery, carrots and broccoli (especially the stalk)
-Fruits: apples, pears, figs, strawberries, raspberries, banana, avocado, apricots and citrus fruits
-Nuts and seeds including flaxseeds
-Other: psyllium husks
Take home message 1: Fibre is anti-inflammatory, helps create a healthy environment for our bacteria, is associated with the prevention of cancer, is effective for protecting our heart and helps manage blood sugar levels.
Take home message 2: Fibre is the real deal when it comes to detoxification. Skip the skinny teas, juice fasts and expensive detox supplements. Just eat a good amount of fibre - and make sure you're drinking enough water with it too.