Fibrous and fabulous: The best fibre-packed foods
Fibre might not be the sexiest food group, but it is essential for keeping your digestive system happy. We explore how to up your intake.
Protein, carbohydrates and fats are usually high on the nutritional trend list but what about often-forgotten fibre? Fibre is an essential part of our diet and can have a huge impact on our daily and long-term health. We all know we should consume it, but how much do we really need and what are the fibre-rich foods?
Unfortunately, many Australians aren’t getting enough fibre in their diet. Australian guidelines recommend adults eat at least 25 to 30 grams of fibre a day, and for many this figure falls short. Although its benefits are commonly linked to digestion and “keeping us regular”, the benefits of fibre don’t stop there. Here are some tips to pack more fibre into your diet to keep you and your gut feeling fabulous.
Dietary fibre, also known as “roughage”, is the parts of plant foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts which your body can’t digest or absorb. This means that fibre travels relatively intact through our digestive system, including the large intestine and colon where it is naturally fermented by good bacteria.
Fibre is crucial for keeping our digestive system happy. There are two types of fibre, soluble fibre and insoluble fibre — both have a unique role to play and are found in different foods.
Soluble fibre dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance which makes you feel full for longer. This type of fibre speeds up digestion and helps with digestive issues including constipation. Foods high in soluble fibre include oats, legumes, fruits, vegetables, barley and psyllium to name just a few.
Insoluble fibre absorbs water rather than dissolves in it. This type of fibre is found in bran, whole wheat flour, skins of fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Rather than speed up the digestive process, insoluble fibre helps soften stools and keep the bowels regular, which is particularly important for people suffering from constipation.
Although it’s not classified as a specific fibre, resistant starch also has an important role to play in the process. Resistant starch functions like soluble fibre and feeds good bacteria through the short-chain fatty acids that live in our large intestines. This type of starch is found in grains, seeds, legumes, raw potatoes, cooked and cooled pasta, rice and slightly unripe bananas. If we don’t eat enough foods which are rich in resistant starch, the good bacteria get hungry and start feeding on other things in our bodies rather than the beneficial short-chain fatty acids. This can have a detrimental impact to the bowel and may cause damage to colon cells, a precursor to bowel cancer.
Fibre is essential to keeping our gut happy. Adequate fibre intake in our diet is particularly important as we get older and our digestive system slows down. Fibre is most famous for maintaining bowel health since it increases the weight and size of your stool and softens it, making it easier to pass. Not only does this help constipation but it can help lower the risk of developing haemorrhoids, diverticulitis and colorectal cancer. A fibre-rich diet can also help increase the good bacteria in the gut.
Recent studies have suggested that fibre can have a positive impact on heart health by helping to lower cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure. The soluble fibre found in bran, some legumes and flaxseed can lower the low-density lipoprotein, or “bad”, cholesterol levels. Fibre also binds to the cholesterol in our system and helps prevent it clogging our arteries.
Since fibre keeps you fuller and satisfied for longer, it is great for weight control. It has the added benefit of binding to fat and sugar molecules, which limits calories from the foods you eat. Fibre is particularly beneficial for people with diabetes since it slows the absorption of sugar to help improve blood sugar levels. By regulating the blood sugar levels, it helps avoid insulin spikes which often make you feel drained. This can have positive effects on energy levels throughout the day, helping to prevent the dreaded post-lunch slump.
Increasing the fibre in your diet
Eat with the rainbow
When it comes to fibre-rich foods, variety is key. Fibre is found mostly in wholefoods or plant foods that have little or no processing. It’s recommended to consume at least two pieces of fruit and approximately two to three cups of vegetables (ideally five different vegetables) on a daily basis. Make sure you opt for high-fibre fruit and vegetables; fruits which are particularly high in fibre include apples, pears, berries and avocados, while high-fibre vegetables include artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and leafy greens. Load your dinner plate with vegetables first to ensure you’re getting the fibre you need.
Skip the juices, since the juicing process removes a lot of the fibre and pulp. It’s best to eat the whole fruit and vegetables wherever possible.
Alternatively, use a blender to whip up some fibre-rich smoothies and smoothie bowls.
Switch to wholegrains
Fibre doesn’t stop with fruit and vegetables. It’s a good idea to consume primarily whole grains to boost your fibre intake. Aim to consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Make the switch from white, processed foods to grain and wholemeal varieties. This could be as simple as switching from white bread, rice and pasta to the brown and wholemeal substitutes. Just simply switching from a white to wholegrain sandwich can quadruple the amount of fibre we consume. Look for breads that list “whole wheat” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient on the label.
You can also enjoy a sweet treat or two with healthy high-fibre options such as oats in banana pancakes and unprocessed wheat bran in muffins and cake. There are so many delicious wholegrains you can experiment with in the kitchen including wild rice, barley, whole buckwheat, whole wheat couscous, quinoa, bulgar, wheat germ and lentil pasta.
Up your water intake
Drinking water is very important in a fibre-rich diet, particularly foods high in insoluble fibre as it absorbs water. Look at your urine throughout the day to see if you’re getting enough water. Apart from first thing in the morning, urine should be on the lighter side rather than dark amber or brown (this is a sign you are dehydrated). It’s recommended to drink at least six to eight large glasses of water each day to help make bowel motions softer and easier to pass.
Never skip breakfast!
Breakfast is another great way to sneak some extra fibre into your day, including wholegrains, nuts, seeds and fruits. Try sprinkling nuts, seeds and psyllium husks directly on your morning porridge or make a chia pudding topped with fresh fruit.
When it comes to cereals, look for ingredients high in wholegrains like rolled oats, bran and muesli. These should have approximately six grams of fibre per serve. You can also add some extra fibre by including chia seeds, ground linseeds and grated apples on top of your morning cereal. Make friends with chia seeds; they are the single best source of fibre at approximately 10 grams of fibre per serve. They are delicious in a chia pudding, sprinkled on a smoothie bowl, made into a jam or just added to oats in your morning porridge.
Boost your intake of legumes
Whether it’s chickpeas, lentils, beans or peas, there is a lot to love about legumes. They are full of nutrition and flavour and are excellent sources of fibre. A cup of cooked beans can deliver 75 per cent of your daily fibre needs. Get creative in the kitchen and trade meat for legumes; think a comforting veggie chilli con carne, lentil lasagne or chickpea and sweet potato curry or buddha bowl. Beans are also delicious in nachos and tacos, paired with plenty of fibre-rich veggies, or the perfect way to bulk up salads and soups, plus extra vegetables and fruit of course.
Rethink your snacks
Make snacks count towards your fibre intake. Trade sweets for healthy high-fibre snacks like nuts and seeds. Raw vegetable sticks and fruit are the perfect pair for a home-made grazing platter with guacamole or hummus. Dried fruits are great, but they should be eaten in moderation as they are high in sugars and calories. Popcorn is also a great option, as long as it’s not covered with butter and salt. Since popcorn is a wholegrain it has approximately 4 grams of fibre per large serving.
Always check nutritional labels
Be a savvy shopper and study the nutrition labels before you buy the product. Consider products which have at least 2.5 grams of fibre per serving, ideally 5 grams of fibre per serving for fibre-rich content. Look for the word “whole” on the ingredients list and opt for wholegrain rather than “multigrain”, which often means there are many different types of grains within the product, not specifically wholegrain. This is especially true for breads and breakfast cereals.
Keep the skin on your fruit and veg
The skin on your fruit and vegetables is often the most fibre-dense, not to mention the highest in vitamins and nutrients, so when you can keep the peels on! This is effective for potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples and pears to name a few.
If your diet isn’t meeting your daily requirements of fibre there’s also the option of taking a fibre supplement, but it’s best to start with wholefoods from your diet first.
It’s a good idea to introduce more fibre gradually, especially if you usually have a diet low in fibre. Too much fibre can cause gastrointestinal upsets like gas, bloating and cramping. Introducing more fibre slowly allows your digestive system to adjust and won’t be as much of a shock to the system.