For years, weight loss has been all about counting kilojoules. But what if we told you fibre is the real hero when you’re getting into shape? Here’s why.
There’s a reason a bowl of porridge helps keep you full all morning, while a blueberry muffin leaves you with mid-morning sugar cravings. It’s called fibre — the quiet achiever that helps you maximise your health and maintain a healthy weight.
In simple terms, fibre is a type of carbohydrate that can’t be digested by the body, which is why it s often called roughage. Ensuring you get enough roughage in your diet can reduce your risk of being overweight, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
Fibre’s your ’bestie’ — because rather than trying to lose weight by cutting down on what you eat, you can shed unwanted kilos by eating more high-fibre foods. High-fibre carb foods include vegies fruit, legumes, seeds and whole grains. But not all carbs are created equal, so when some people cut down on the amount of carbs they eat in an effort to be healthier, they also run the risk of losing these type of carbs — the health superheroes.
Recent research has reinforced how paying more attention to fibre intake means better health in the short and long term. So, with four out of five Aussies not eating enough fibre, we show you simple ways to get your fill.
Q How much fibre do I need?
A We should be aiming for 25–30g of fibre a day, according to Australian guidelines, but to really enjoy fibre’s full benefits and reduce long-term health risks, those numbers need to be higher: 28g daily for women and at least 38g daily for men.
Despite the known benefits of fibre, many Aussies are falling short of this target. The 2011–12 National Nutrition Survey indicated that the average fibre intake for adults is only 20–25g.
What is fibre?
‘Dietary fibre’ is the term we use to describe the part of plant food that isn’t digested or absorbed in the small intestine. Rather, it is completely or partly fermented in the large intestine. The bowel is one long muscular tube and, like any muscle in your body, it needs exercise. The bulk from fibre gives your bowel muscles a good work out, helping to prevent conditions such as constipation, haemorrhoids and diverticular disease. Fibre occurs naturally in plant foods only, but nowadays fibre extracts are being added to other foods such as dairy products. Below are the main types of fibre:
Resistant starch is a type of fibre that is not digested but is in fact fermented by bacteria in the colon. It’s found in legumes (like lentils, beans and chickpeas), seeds, grains, green bananas and certain cooked-and-cooled starchy foods such as potatoes and rice. The amount of resistant starch depends on the way a food is prepared.
Resistant starch also acts as a prebiotic (food for your gut bacteria) which is important for good gut health.
Soluble fibre mixes with water in the gut and forms a gel-like substance that slows down digestion. This helps you feel full for longer, while giving your body time to absorb nutrients and delay absorption of sugar into your blood stream. This is important if you have insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. Psyllium husk, legumes, oats and ground flax seeds are all high in vital soluble fibre.
Insoluble fibre doesn’t mix with water but acts as a bulking agent in your bowel. Insoluble fibre draws water into the bowel, softening the stool and making it easier to pass through, preventing constipation and improving bowel regularity. Bran products, wholegrain breads and cereals, legumes, nuts and the skin of fruit and vegetables are examples of foods that are high in insoluble fibre.
Functional fibre is fibre taken from the food it’s naturally found in — and added to processed foods. Examples include, Metamucil (psyllium), and Benefiber (wheat dextrin). Chicory root extract, also known as inulin, is added to many products, such as muesli bars, to increase fibre and sweetness.
While functional fibre boosts your fibre intake, wholefood sources of fibre are your best bet, as they are rich in other valuable nutrients.
How fibre helps you
Diets that are high in fibre or whole grains help you lose weight in several ways. First, there’s a link between a person’s body weight and their gut bacteria. Studies have shown that high-fibre, prebiotic foods can help with weight loss. A diet that s high in fibre improves the gut bacteria profile — so an overweight person eating enough fibre can achieve a similar gut bacteria profile to someone who is a healthier body weight.
Second, the time it takes to chew fibre-rich foods— and their physical bulk — helps you feel full. Fibre reduces the speed of digestion, giving your body time to harvest nutrients you need to keep healthy.
Finally, that fullness lasts longer because a gel-like substance formed by some fibre slows the release of sugar into the blood after eating. This means you’re likely to consume fewer kilojoules, helping you to shed unwanted kilos.
Reduce type 2 diabetes
A 12,000-strong European study found that fibre from vegetables and whole grains can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Higher-fibre foods moderate the rise in blood sugar after eating, meaning that your body doesn’t have to produce as much insulin.
Gut bacteria also play a key role in inflammation, a condition that may predispose people to type 2 diabetes. Good gut bacteria can play a part in weight regulation — and obesity is an important risk factor in the development of type 2 diabetes.
Protect your heart
A high-fibre diet may help protect your heart by reducing cholesterol levels in the blood, as well as improving blood sugar levels, blood pressure and weight — all risk factors for heart disease.
Fibre is thought to help your heart by increasing short-chain fatty acid production (which reduces inflammation and cholesterol production), and by forming gel-like substances in the bowel that may reduce sugar and cholesterol absorption.
Higher intakes of fibre are associated with lower rates of bowel cancer. They are also thought to be linked to lower rates of a range of cancers — oesophageal, pancreatic, gastric, endometrial, breast and renal. Butyrate, one of the short-chain fatty acids produced by the fermentation of fibre in your bowel, may reduce the risk of tumour growth.
Improve gut health
Carbs and dietary fibres are your gut bacteria’s favourite foods — and gut health is important in making sure the rest of your body is healthy.
Gut bacteria ferment some types of dietary fibre, producing by-products that can affect your health. Short-chain fatty acids are the main health-improving by-products, countering inflammation and cancer cell formation and affecting transit time of food through your digestive system, plus nutrient uptake. The type of fibre you eat, as well as the amount, also changes the bacterial profile of your digestive system.
Get more fibre at every meal
Trying to lose weight but feel hungry all the time? Or perhaps you just want to take your fibre intake to the max. Choose wholegrain foods most of the time, and enjoy legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils) at least two-to-three times a week. Mix and match these high-fibre choices to hit your daily fibre target!
Aim for at least 30g of fibre a day
1 tbs = 5.5g
1/2 cup = 12.5g
2 bricks = 3.5g
2 slices = 6g
130g can = 6g
1/4 cup = 2g
1/4 cup = 4g
1 medium = 3g
1 medium = 4.5g
125g can = 6g
1 cup = 1g
2tbs = 2.5g
Wholegrain barley wrap
1 wrap = 10g
2 crackers = 4g
1/4 medium = 2g
2 small = 1.5g
Brown rice (cooked)
1 cup = 3g
1/2 cup = 3.5g
Wholemeal pasta (cooked)
1 cup = 10g
1/2 small = 3g
1 cup = 8g
1/2 cup = 2.5g
1/2 cup = 5g
1 tbs = 3g
1 medium = 3g
2 tbs = 1.5 g
20 nuts = 3g
2 tbs = 2.5g
1 cip = 4g
2 cup = 4g
7- day plan
Follow our high-fibre meal plan for weight loss
Help! I’m bloated & constipated …
Eating too much fibre, too soon, can leave you feeling bloated, constipated and uncomfortable. Try to increase your fibre intake slowly over a few weeks and make sure you drink plenty of fluids, as fibre draws water into the bowel. Lots of fibre and not enough water can leave you feeling constipated.
Some types of fibre can also exacerbate underlying irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you have IBS and you’re following a low-FODMAP diet, you may find some high-fibre foods, including beans and grainy carbohydrates, make your symptoms worse. Usually these foods are a great source of fibre, which is why it’s important to try reintroducing FODMAP foods to your diet. Make sure to get plenty of fibre from those vegetables, fruits, grains and pulses that you can tolerate.