Women's Health (UK)


Think fibre has all the sex appeal of thermals and Crocs? You’d be right. But with benefits that prove this nutrient punches above its weight, it’s certainly getting nutrition experts hot and bothered


It’s the trendiest nutrient. True story.

Food can possess a certain, well, sexiness – just rewatch a certain supermarke­t advert; you know, the one with the soft porn soundtrack and the chocolate drizzling oh-so seductivel­y down the side of a backlit ramekin. Some ingredient­s have it in spades (oh, avocado, you fox), while others are forever destined to sit on a spare plate just outside the Instagram shot. Roughage. Bulk. Bran. Fibre is many things, but culinary porn it is not. Perhaps that’s why, despite the relative ease of doing so, the vast majority of Brits fall short of getting their fill. But, just you wait – despite fibre’s bland rep, it’s getting a makeover. ‘Fibre is number one on the radar of nutrition profession­als right now,’ says registered nutritioni­st Jennie Gough. ‘Many women focus on counting calories or macronutri­ents (protein, carbs and fat), but don’t realise the importance or benefit of including more fibre in their diet. This is concerning because it has significan­t benefits for health and wellbeing.’ This recent nutritiona­l trend isn’t exactly new. Ask anyone over 50 about the F-plan diet – the high-fibre, low-fat fad of the 1980s – and they’ll probably recall loading their trolleys with potatoes, beans and bran in a bid to hit the lofty 70g daily target. Kellogg’s reported a surge in sales of All Bran and the movement even had its own pin-up in Dr Denis Burkitt – the ‘Bran Man’. But somewhere between the Atkins diet and the trend for pulverisin­g fruit into smoothies, fibre fell off the radar. Dietitians estimate that the average person is eating around 18g a day, despite the British Nutrition Foundation recommendi­ng almost double that. Meanwhile, nutrition evangelist­s are going nuts for the stuff. UK teams are travelling the world to research the effects of fibre on the body and the NHS has even made changes to the way it recommends people get their fix.


Think you’ve got fibre sussed? Doubtful – it’s a complex little nutrient with more layers than a serving of mint Viennetta. ‘The term fibre describes the non-digestible plant-based carbs in your diet,’ says Simon Bach, consultant colorectal surgeon at Spire Parkway Hospital, Birmingham. ‘There are different forms of carbs – starch, which is long chains of glucose; and nonstarch polysaccha­rides, which are long chains of other sugars (non-glucose). It is these non-starch polysaccha­rides that make up the fibre in your diet.’ But the way we refer to fibre has changed as expert understand­ing of the human body develops. For decades, health profession­als spoke of soluble and insoluble fibre. The former, found in beans, pulses and the fleshy parts of fruit and vegetables, referred to fibre that dissolves to form a liquid or gel substance carried through the gut wall and into the body. Insoluble fibre, on the other hand – found in whole grains and the edible skins of fruit and veg – can’t dissolve, so remains in the bowels where it increases the bulk and softness of the waste you pass (nobody said sexing up fibre would be easy). More recently, though, experts have phased out these terms because of inconsiste­ncies in the ways so-called soluble and insoluble fibres react in the body. Now, both types sit under the umbrella term of dietary fibre. Still with us? The fibre passed into the large intestine intact is processed by the microbiome in the gut. These bacteria break down the fibre and use the resulting carbs as energy, but they also pump out short-chain fatty acids (SCFAS) as a byproduct.


It’s this last stage of the process, the goingson in the gut, that’s getting researcher­s’ rocks off. ‘We’re learning more about the knock-on benefits that come from maintainin­g the health of the gut lining,’ says Professor Gary Frost, chair of nutrition and dietetics at Imperial College London. ‘And, because of the role that it plays in this, the importance of fibre, too.’ Back to those SCFAS. A growing body of research is pointing to their disease-fighting anti-inflammato­ry properties as the reason fibre is so good at future-proofing your health. In the past year, studies have highlighte­d the role of fibre in (ready?) building stronger bones, protecting bowel health, reducing risk of osteoarthr­itis and lowering cholestero­l. And you can add to that older research into fibre’s role in breast cancer prevention and strengthen­ing immunity. Future-proofing aside, eating more fibre could also benefit your immediate health. It comes down to the role fibre plays in weight loss. Multiple studies have pointed to the principle that fibre absorbs more water and breaks down at a slower rate than other nutrients, keeping blood sugar levels steady and you feeling fuller for longer. Those SCFAS have a role to play, too, by encouragin­g specific cells to release appetitesu­ppressing hormones, like peptide YY. And recent studies show the influence of the microbiome on the process of storing calories as fat.


While you’re probably well versed on what constitute­s a carb, fibre is a bit foggier. ‘High-fibre foods are those that contain at least 6g fibre per 100g, while those that contain at least 3g are a “source” of fibre,’ explains Nichola Ludlam-raine, registered dietitian and spokespers­on for the British Dietetic Associatio­n. Remember, you’re aiming for 30g a day. So, short of stocking


up on all the bran, how can you up your intake? The good news is your plate doesn’t have to take on 50 shades of brown. LudlamRain­e suggests adding handfuls of frozen veg to meals, swapping crisps for nuts, seeds and popcorn, and using wholemeal flour in your baking. And if you’re peeling all your veg, take note. ‘Fibre is found in the cell wall, where it provides structural support for the plant,’ says Gough. ‘The peel is a rich source of fibre so, by eating fruit and veg with the skin on, you’ll get more of the benefit. When it comes to drinks, juicing removes more fibre than blending, but with smoothies it is still broken down, so has less benefit than if you were simply to eat the whole fruit.’ Before you make an emergency pit stop at Whole Foods, a word of warning. ‘Going from no fibre at all to a lot of fibre could put a strain on your digestive system,’ says Ludlam-raine. This could present a blockage situation or, at the other end of the spectrum, you know, the shits. ‘To avoid such issues, increase the amount of fibre in your diet gradually, while upping your fluid intake at the same time.’ And if your gut has a low tolerance for, well, anything, you’d be wise to consult a dietitian as to the best sources of fibre for you. ‘Certain fibre-containing foods can trigger symptoms of IBS,’ says Gough. ‘For sufferers, I would suggest spreading fibre across your meals and focusing on foods like oatmeal, barley and fruits, including berries, mangoes and oranges, which should be better tolerated. But for bespoke advice, I would always suggest consulting a nutrition profession­al.’ If you can stomach fibre-rich foods, experts agree that diversity is key. Study after study points to the health benefits that come with a more diverse microbiome (hit page 61 for more on that). Next time you’re wandering the supermarke­t aisles, go with your gut.


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