Why you should load up on fibre

Experts insist that we should include more fibre in our diet. Do you know why? And what are the simplest ways to have a fibre-rich diet?

Fibre foods

Dietary fibre, or roughage as it is technically called, is a type of carbohydrate that is not digested by the body. So why have it in the first place? Because, as fibre moves through the digestive system, it absorbs water on its way, which helps ease bowel movements. Thus, consuming high-fibre food eases or prevents constipation while lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease. A high-fibre diet keeps you fit and healthy, and also helps us ward-off free radical damage, even before it bares its tentacles. Let’s look at the various benefits of a diet rich in roughage.

Benefits of a diet high in fibre

1. Keeps digestive system healthy

The most undisputed advantage of insoluble fibre is its ability to soften and expand stool volume easing bowel movement. In case of watery stools, fibre soaks in the water, while adding bulk to the stool. Thus, fibre ensures a clear passage of stools, which would otherwise stay in the digestive system, get fermented by the intestinal bacteria and lead to constipation, colitis and haemorrhoids [piles].

2. Keeps cholesterol levels in check

Soluble-fibre [one that dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance] binds with the cholesterol in the blood and helps in its elimination from the body. Gradually, the blood cholesterol levels come down, and so do your chances of heart related disease.

3. Maintains blood sugar levels

Fibre-rich foods have a low glycaemic index that means there is a gradual release of sugar in the body and hence no fluctuations in blood sugar levels or insulin.

4. Aids weight loss

Roughage, being energy-dense, provide few calories [since most of it is not digested by the body]. They also take time to chew, which in turn gives the body time to realise whether it’s still hungry. This reduces overeating. Also, such foods are digested slowly, leaving you feeling satiated for long.

Besides the above, roughage may protect you from colon cancer, suggest some studies. It also has cholesterol-lowering effects, thus improving your heart health too.

What if enough fibre is not consumed?

The digestive system is constantly at work, digesting the food and getting rid of the waste. And only a good supply of fibre helps it function smoothly. A diet generous in refined or processed foods and one lacking in fibre, leads to inefficient digestion. This leads to several digestive disorders.

Difference between soluble and insoluble fibre

While soluble fibre dissolves in water, the insoluble variety doesn’t.

The soluble variety absorbs water to form a gel-like material. This helps reduce cholesterol and blood glucose levels. It is mainly found in whole grain cereals like oats, pulses, vegetables and fruit.

The insoluble variety is found in whole grain cereals, wheat bran, skin of fruits, nuts and vegetables. This remains undissolved in water thus adding bulk to the stool and allowing easy movement and elimination of material from the digestive tract.

Your daily requirement

According to the Institute of Medicine, USA, one should consume about 14g fibre for every 1000 calories every day. So, if you are consuming 1500kcals, you should consume 21g fibre. You can take the help of your nutritionist/dietician to calculate your daily calorie intake.

Following are some general intake recommendations for adults*. It is usually lower for women and elderly.

Men Below age 50 and younger = 38g
Women Below age 50 and younger = 25g

Men Above age 51 and older = 30g
Women Above age 51 and older = 21g

*The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, USA

However, the Harvard School of Public Health encourages having 20g or more fibre each day for children and adults from natural foods rather than supplements.

Fibre-rich foods for you! [Gram of fibre per 100g of edible portion]

High (>10) Medium (1 – 10) Low (<1)
Cereals like wheat, wheat bran, oats, jowar, bajra, ragi,and maize. Pulses, lentils and beans (variety of dals, black chana and chickpea), fenugreek (methi) leaves and seeds, flax seeds, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, melon seeds and sunflower seeds. Rice, most fruits and vegetables, coconut and sesame (til). Refined and processed foods, sugar, fats/oils, milk and all types of meat.

Easy does it

Fibre foodsSudden increase in consumption of roughage causes cramping, flatulence or bloating. So, one must go easy by adding it slowly into one’s diet. Add a portion like a fruit daily and wait for a week or two. Gradually introduce other food sources. This gives time for the natural bacteria in your digestive tract to adjust to the fibre. Here’s how to go about it…

  • Begin including fibre in your diet with whole grain cereals like oats, muesli and wheat. You can have wheat flakes or whole wheat or multi grain [wheat, bajra or ragi flour] chapattis. In case you consume breakfast cereal, ensure it has 5g or more.
  • Include 2 or 2 ½ cups vegetables in every meal in the form of fresh raw salads, vegetable or soups.
  • Eat at least ½ cup of beans or pulses in every meal.
  • Consume at least two cups of fresh fruit daily.
  • Snack on a handful of nuts and dry fruits as they contain good amount of fibre.

After having roughage, drink plenty of water. Since fibre absorbs the water, you need to maintain the water levels in your body. Water also helps your body in processing the fibre. Also, reduce the consumption of caffeinated beverages like tea, coffee or carbonated drinks to avoid dehydration.

Alternative to natural fibre

Some individuals are allergic to certain foods such as wheat. However, for such people, given the wide variety of foods that are high in fibre, finding the suitable food to include in their diet shouldn’t be a problem.

Those with severe food allergies or intestinal problems need not deprive themselves of fibre. They can resort to supplements under the guidance of a physician. This is also important for diabetics as fibre supplements tend to lower blood sugar levels and may require monitoring, if taken along with insulin.

To wrap it up

Although dietary fibre seems to be the least digested nutrient, its sources are rich in carbohydrates, proteins and fats and are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help build strength and immunity. So, including roughage in your diet brings in more benefits than intended.

A version of this was first published in the March 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Afrah Karmale holds a B.H Sc degree in Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics. She is a consultant nutritionist and dietitian at a leading healthcare firm. Afrah loves to read motivational and inspiring stories. She is also passionate about food, cooking and travelling. In any situation she relies on the 3 Ps of life: Prayer, Perseverance and Patience


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