Fibre is an essential part of a healthy diet and helps to keep your digestive system in good working order
What is fibre?
Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that is found in all types of plant-based foods, including fruit, vegetables and grains. However, unlike other types of complex carbohydrate, it’s not easily broken down by your digestive system and most of it passes through your body unchanged.
There are two types of fibre – soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fibre passes through your digestive system undigested, whereas soluble fibre is broken down by bacteria in your large bowel.
Why do I need fibre?
Fibre is essential to keep your bowel healthy. When fibre passes through your bowel, it absorbs a lot of water and increases the bulk of any waste matter that leaves your body. This makes your faeces softer and easier to pass through your bowel.
Some types of fibre also produce a small amount of energy; however, this is so little that it isn’t really considered to be an energy source.
Health benefits of fibre
Both soluble and insoluble fibre are beneficial to your health. Insoluble fibre can help to prevent various bowel problems, such as constipation and diverticular disease (when your bowel wall becomes inflamed and damaged). A high-fibre diet has also been associated with a reduced risk of bowel cancer. However, there is some debate about whether fibre protects against bowel cancer, or whether people who eat lots of fibre may just have a healthier diet in general, which puts them at a lower risk. Either way, make sure you include lots of insoluble fibre in your diet as it can help to keep your bowel healthy and functioning well.
Fibre has some other important health benefits in addition to its effects in your bowel. Soluble fibre has been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels, which in turn reduces your risk of heart disease. There is also some evidence to suggest that fibre can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Fibre also slows down the absorption of carbohydrates into your blood, which can help to keep your blood sugar level constant. This can be particularly helpful in people who have diabetes.
Finally, foods high in fibre help to make you feel full, control your appetite and maintain a healthy weight.
Good sources of fibre
All plant-based foods contain fibre but some have more than others. Good sources of insoluble fibre include:
- wholemeal and wholegrain bread
- wholegrain breakfast cereals
- brown rice
- fruit and vegetables
Good sources of soluble fibre include:
- beans and lentils
- pulses (eg peas and beans)
How much fibre do I need?
The recommended intake of fibre for adults is 18g a day. However, most people in the UK don’t eat enough.
So what does 18g of fibre look like? Here are a few examples of the amount of fibre in some common foods.
- One bowl (30g) of high-fibre cereal, eg bran flakes – 4g
- One slice of wholemeal bread – 2 to 3g (white bread contains less than half this amount)
- One small baked potato (with skin) – 3g
- Half a tin of baked beans (200g) – 7g
- Portion of dried figs (50g) – 4g
- One medium-sized apple – 2g
You don’t need to keep track of the amount of fibre in all the food you eat but if you make wholemeal and wholegrain, starchy foods the basis of all your meals and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, you should be well on your way to reaching the recommended amount.
If you do decide to increase your fibre intake, it’s best to do it gradually. Suddenly upping it can lead to wind, bloating and stomach cramps. However, your digestive system will slowly adapt to the increased amount of fibre and any problems will gradually subside. It’s also important to make sure you drink enough fluids if you increase your fibre intake as fibre absorbs water – if you don’t drink enough you may get constipation.
Fill up on fibre
Want to get more fibre into your diet? Here are a few tips to help you on your way.
Go for wholegrain bread, rice and pasta rather than white versions. They are higher in fibre and just as tasty.
Switch to a high-fibre breakfast cereal.
Don’t just rely on fruit juice for your five-a-day. It’s ok to have the occasional glass, but if you eat whole fruits instead, it will help to bump up your fibre intake – and they also contain less sugar and fewer calories.
Try to incorporate more pulses – such as beans, chickpeas and lentils – into your diet. They are a very healthy, and often cheap, alternative to meat, being high in protein and low in fat – as well as an excellent source of fibre.
Dried and fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, rye crispbreads and raw vegetables are all examples of high-fibre, healthy snacks.
Check the labels – foods that are classed as high fibre must contain at least 6g of fibre per 100g.
Pulses include beans, lentils and peas. They are a cheap, low-fat source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and they count towards your recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables.
A pulse is an edible seed that grows in a pod. Pulses include all beans, peas and lentils, such as:
- baked beans
- red, green, yellow and brown lentils
- black-eyed peas
- garden peas
- runner beans
- broad beans
- kidney beans
- butter beans
Why eat pulses?
Pulses are a great source of protein.
This means they can be particularly important for people who do not get protein by eating meat, fish or dairy products.
However, pulses can also be a healthy choice for meat-eaters. You can add pulses to soups, casseroles and meat sauces to add extra texture and flavour. This means you can use less meat, which makes the dish lower in fat and cheaper.
Pulses are a good source of iron.
Pulses are also a starchy food and add fibre to your meal. The fibre found in pulses may help lower blood cholesterol, so they are good for your heart.
Pulses are often bought in tins. If you buy tinned pulses, check the label and try to choose ones that have no added salt or sugar.
Pulses and 5 A DAY
Pulses count as one of your five recommended daily portions of fruit and vegetables.
One portion is 80g, which is equivalent to around three heaped tablespoons of cooked pulses.
However, if you eat more than three heaped tablespoons of beans and pulses in a day, this still only counts as one portion of your 5 A DAY. This is because while pulses contain fibre, they don't give the same mixture of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as fruit and vegetables.
This excludes green beans, such as broad beans and runner beans, which are counted as a vegetable and not a bean or pulse for 5 A DAY.