As part of my gut health series for Symprove, I’ve been looking at how our diets affect gut health.
Today I’m talking the F word… and by F word, I mean fibre!
What is fibre?
Good question. Fibre is the edible part of plant foods that we don’t fully digest. It’s found in the skins, pips, flesh and shells of wholegrain cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses (aka peas, beans and lentils). Your granny might have called it roughage.
There are two types of fibre – insoluble and soluble. Our bodies can’t digest insoluble fibre, so it works like a broom, sweeping waste through our digestive system, adding bulk to our poo. Soluble fibre dissolves in the digestive system, becoming gummy. It helps soften our poo and may regulate cholesterol levels.
High fibre foods typically contain a mix of insoluble and soluble fibre, which is helpful, as we need both.
Why is fibre good for gut health?
Most of us know that fibre helps us poo regularly, preventing constipation. But experts also think high fibre diets protect against bowel cancer, because they lessen the amount of time harmful waste products stay in contact with the lining of our bowel.
But fibre has other important benefits too – like feeding your gut bacteria. Because fibre isn’t digested and absorbed in the small intestine, it passes to the large intestine where it provides energy for the helpful bacteria that live there. The bacteria feast on fibre, turning it into beneficial compounds that have anti-inflammatory effects. These compounds help to keep our digestive system healthy.
Studies show eating a fibre rich diet can boost the numbers of helpful bacteria in the gut, where as not getting enough fibre can have the opposite effect, leading to a less diverse microbiome. This means eating a fibre-rich diet is one step you can take to maintaining a healthy gut.
How much fibre should I eat?
Current guidelines recommend that healthy adults (16 +) aim for 30 grams of fibre a day. Most of us don’t get anywhere near that much – last estimates show adults in the UK manage around 18 grams, so there’s room to improve the F factor.
An easy place to start is keep a food diary for a couple of days and see where you can add more fibre – start with a change to your breakfast, then add your next swap a week later.
Another tip is to compare the fibre content of foods by checking the ‘per 100 grams’ info – a food is high in fibre if it contains 6 grams of fibre or more. See how your breakfast cereal compares, or if you could switch your bread to one with higher fibre content.
How can I add more fibre to my diet?
You can boost your fibre intake by…
Getting five or more servings of fruit and veggies a dayAdding berries or sliced fruit and seeds to cerealChoosing oats for breakfastEat veggies and potatoes with their skins onStirring linseeds into yoghurtChoosing wholemeal, wholegrain or rye breadSwapping to wholemeal or lentil pastaAdding extra vegetables to pasta sauceAdding lentils or beans to salads, soups, stewsSnacking on veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds or oaty-based bars
Take it slowly, and drink plenty of water too
If you are increasing your fibre intake, do so slowly over the space of a few weeks and make sure you drink plenty of water to give your digestive system time to adjust. Without water, fibre can’t do its job properly. Eating lots more fibre without giving your digestive system time to adjust can give you tummy aches and wind.
What about if I have IBS or a bowel condition?
If you have IBS or a bowel condition like Crohn’s or colitis, eating lots of fibre (especially insoluble fibre from wholegrain cereals, and breads, seeds and skins) isn’t helpful, as it can make symptoms like wind, bloating and diarrhoea worse, and can aggravate bowel conditions.
If this sounds familiar, advice from a nutritionist or dietitian can help you to adjust the amount of fibre in your diet according to your symptoms.
How much fibre?