Fibre is an essential component of a healthy balanced diet, but most of us don’t eat enough. Here’s why we need fibre, and how you can get more of it in your diet.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and By Dr Sally Norton
Fibre is a vital food group and getting your daily fibre-fix is essential for gut health. But ‘roughage’ isn’t just important for digestion; fibre is linked to a variety of health concerns, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. A diet rich in fibre can also aid healthy weight maintenance, as it makes you feel fuller.
Fibre can be found in a number of foods including wholemeal bread, fruit, vegetables and pulses, and yet many of us don’t eat enough.
NHS weight loss and health consultant surgeon Dr Sally Norton outlines why we need fibre, and how you can get more of it into your diet:
What is fibre?
Fibre is a complex carbohydrate (type of sugar) but unlike other carbohydrates, which are broken down by the body to provide fuel in the form of glucose, fibre cannot usually be digested by the human body. Fibre may be soluble or insoluble.
🍏 Soluble fibre
Soluble fibre is found in foods like oats and barley, beans and peas, whole grains, nuts and seeds and fruit and vegetables.
Soluble fibre dissolves in the stomach into a gel-like substance that ensures food particles are absorbed more slowly, helping to keep blood sugar levels more stable and lower cholesterol.
🍏 Insoluble fibre
Insoluble fibre does not dissolve but absorbs water providing bulk and moisture to stools, a natural laxative effect and so reducing the symptoms of constipation and improving bowel health.
It is found in whole grain wheat – as it includes bran, corn (including popcorn), oats and oat bran, nuts, fruit and vegetables (especially the skins).
Fibre health benefits
Studies show that a high-fibre diet can protect us against obesity, heart disease, type-2 diabetes and certain cancers. But we often don’t eat enough to get those health benefits.
Recently, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition or SACN, backed by the British Dietetic Association, recommended increasing the fibre in our diet to at least 30g a day (less for kids, obviously).
How much fibre do we need?
As a rough guide, a couple of slices of wholemeal bread or a bowl of high bran cereal have around 4g of fibre. Fruit or veg contains about 1g per tablespoon. And nuts, seeds and pulses can contain 2g or more.
Aside from the 5 portions of fruit and veg we should be aiming to eat each day, we can now find fibre in a huge choice of delicious breads, snacks, and meals – just check labels.
🍎 According to government guidelines, for a healthy balanced diet our dietary fibre intake should be 30g a day. Most adults are thought to consume an average of 18g day, so it’s important to increase your intake.
The importance of wholegrains
One great way to increase your fibre intake is to swap those heavily processed carbs found in many cakes, biscuits and breads for wholegrains.
Wholegrains are more difficult to digest than processed grains due to their fibrous casing. That means fewer calories according to research, which showed it took more energy to digest sandwiches of wholewheat bread – with sunflower seeds, kernels of grain and cheddar cheese – than a processed cheese toastie using the same quantity of white bread. Although portions were the same, people enjoying the less-processed snacks took on-board 10 percent fewer calories.
Products made from refined white carbs are likely to contain higher levels of fat and sugar.
What’s more, products made from refined white carbs are likely to contain higher levels of fat and sugar. But because they’re refined, they’re not as filling, meaning we often end up eating larger portions to feel full. Which doesn’t help our attempts at weight-control and explains why so many of us feel bloated, or sluggish after eating a huge bowl of white pasta or rice.
By contrast, wholegrains are higher in fibre, meaning we feel fuller for longer with smaller amounts. Wholegrains and other fibrous foods take more chewing too, which helps weight loss too. So, fibre is a great ally. It can help us feel full, which is good for weight control. It can improve our gut health and reduce our risk of bowel cancer and more. Plus it can help reduce the risks of diabetes, heart disease and more.