We are always being told to eat more fibre to keep “regular”. Adequate fibre is certainly necessary to prevent constipation but it also has many other health benefits including strengthening immune function and helping to prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and bowel cancer.
According to a new study at the University of Illinois a diet rich in soluble fibre can help reduce inflammation associated with obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease and help strengthen the immune system.
Association between good digestion and immune function
Maintaining a healthy colon and digestive system is essential for long-term health. Not only does the digestive system break down food to provide essential nutrients and energy, it is also a crucial component of your immune system.
Beneficial bacteria found in the bowel, namely lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are needed for healthy immune function. Certain types of fibre (soluble and resistant starch) supports the health and integrity of the colon and immune system by maintaining healthy populations of ‘friendly’ bowel bacteria. Acting as a ‘prebiotic’ they stimulate the growth and activity of these beneficial bacteria and discourage the growth of pathogenic (harmful) bacteria
In order to strengthen your immunity, you must start by supporting your digestive system with appropriate nutrition. Dietary fibre should be included daily in your diet as it helps maintain the health of your colon and digestive system.
Fibre for weight loss
Dietary fibre as part of a well balanced diet can also help with weight loss. High-fibre foods promote a sense of satiety or fullness that can reduce hunger and overeating of unhealthy food. Fibrous foods help prevent weight grain because
they are digested slower, releasing glucose into the bloodstream more gradually, which helps maintain balanced blood sugar levels and prevent insulin surges.
Different types of fibre
Dietary fibre is a type of indigestible carbohydrate derived from the edible parts of plants found in wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.
There are three different types of fibre, all of which play an important part in our health and wellbeing:
Insoluble fibre helps maintain bowel regularity by increasing the bulk of the stool and speeding up the time it takes to travel through the intestines. This results in softer, larger stools and more frequent bowel actions. Diets rich in insoluble fibre are associated with a low prevalence of constipation and colon cancer. Insoluble fibre is found in wholegrains, unprocessed bran and wheatgerm, nuts and seeds (flaxseed), and fruit and vegetables.
Soluble fibre helps strengthen the immune system by stimulating the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria that play an important role in immunity and digestion. Soluble fibre helps lower cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease, and helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels and thus plays a role in the prevention and treatment of type-2 diabetes. Soluble fibre is found in legumes, oats, brown rice, fruit, vegetables and seeds. Psyllium husks are an easy convenient way to increase your daily soluble fibre intake. Try sprinkling a tablespoon over breakfast cereal, in smoothies, juice or through yoghurt.
Resistant starch is fermented in the colon and produces a substance called Butyrate, which helps support immune health by stimulating production of T-helper cells and antibodies. Resistant starch is found in corn, rice, seeds, legumes, unprocessed grains, potato and green bananas.
How much fibre do we need?
Most people don’t getting enough fibre due to a high consumption of refined foods. When grains are milled or refined, the bran and germ elements of the grain are removed, taking away their fibre-rich outer layer along with a lot of their nutritional value. Wholegrain bread, cereal and flour are recommended over refined varieties, as wholegrains contain all of the nutritious elements of the grain. Eating a variety of different wholegrain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds will provide all of the dietary fibre you need together with a good balance of soluble fibre, insoluble fibre and resistant starch.
Recommended fibre intake for children and adults
All children aged 4-8 years should eat 18 g of fibre a day.
Boys aged 9-13 years should eat 24 g of fibre a day and 14-18 years should eat 28 g of fibre a day.
Girls aged 9-13 years should eat 20 g of fibre a day and 14-18 years should eat 22 g of fibre a day.
Adults over 19 years, men should eat 30g, whereas women required 25g of fibre.
Simple ways to increase your daily fibre intake
You should gradually increase your fibre intake to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating and gas. In addition you should drink plenty of water to prevent constipation, due to fibrous foods drawing water from the intestines to form a softer stool.
1. Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals such as muesli and porridge whole oats.
2. Choose wholegrain breads and crackers.
3. Bake with wholegrain flour instead of white flour.
4. Increase your fruit and vegetable intake. Skin of fruits and vegetables, like apples and potatoes contain good amounts of fibre, so when buying organic produce leave the skins on.
5. Eat whole fruit instead of fruit juice. If making fresh juices, make sure you add the pulp.
6. Increase legumes (beans, lentils, peas) in your diet. Add to soups, salads, and stir-fries, make hummus, falafels or baked beans.
7. Choose brown rice over white. Brown rice takes around 45-50 minutes to cook, but for the extra fibre it delivers, it’s worth the wait. If you soak brown rice for 30 minutes before cooking, it will cook quicker and have a softer texture.
8. Include raw and unsalted nuts and seeds in cooking (stir-fries, biscuits and muffins) and sprinkled on breakfast cereals and salads.