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The lowdown on fibre

Fibre is widely available, affordable and it helps to fend off disease. Yet you're probably not getting enough of it. Here's how you can boost your intake.

One small thing: Swap white pasta for wholegrain pasta to double your fibre intake.

Incorporating fibre into your family's meal plan may not always be a primary consideration – but perhaps it should be. Time magazine reported that a large review of studies on fibre, published in The Lancet medical journal, makes a strong case for this underrated superfood lowering the risk of at least four diseases by 15-30%, only one of which relates directly to the gut.

Registered dietitian Leanne Kiezer explains further: "Certain fibre-rich foods can slow the absorption of sugar from food, which is how it assists with blood sugar control for those with diabetes. A fibre-rich diet also removes toxins from the bowel and increases a feeling of fullness after eating, which is helpful with weight management."

How much fibre do we need?

"The daily requirement is about 25-30g per day," says Debby Watkins, a registered dietitian at Life Fourways Hospital. "Since many people favour ready-made meals and fast food, they are definitely not meeting the recommended daily amount."

While 25g is the minimum, researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand and the University of Dundee in Scotland say there are distinct benefits to pushing beyond what is adequate.

Soluble vs insoluble fibre – what's the difference?

PnP dietitian Juliet Fearnhead explains: "The type of fibre that helps to lower blood cholesterol and helps with moderating the release of sugar from food is called soluble fibre. This fibre is found in most vegetables and fruit, and legumes such as beans and lentils."

Insoluble fibre, however, is found mostly in wholegrains. "This type of fibre helps to normalise bowel movements, thereby lowering the risk of developing haemorrhoids, diverticular disease [when small bulges develop in the lining of the intestine] and colorectal cancer," says Fearnhead. "It's important to eat a variety of foods to get enough of both types of fibre."

Is it possible to get too much fibre?

"Too much fibre can exacerbate symptoms of gastroenteritis, inflammatory bowel disease or acute flare-ups of diverticulitis. It's best to seek medical advice before substantially increasing your fibre intake, particularly if you have any pre-existing bowel conditions," Watkins advises.

Kiezer and Fearnhead also provide a word of caution: "Be careful not to add too much fibre to your diet too quickly, as this can result in intestinal gas, abdominal bloating and cramping. Increase the fibre in your diet gradually over a period of a few weeks as this allows the natural bacteria in your digestive system to adjust to the change."

Why is fibre such a talking point?

As more and more people choose to follow diets high in protein (like the keto, Atkins and South Beach plans), foods like wholegrains and fruits are being discarded in favour of chicken, fish, fats and eggs.

But fibre is an important component of a balanced diet and should be incorporated in the form of whole foods instead of fibre supplements, which do not provide the variety of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients.

5 simple swaps to up your intake of fibre (and its added nutrients)
  1. Swap ¾ cup of cornflakes (1g of fibre) for ¾ cup of bran flakes (5g)
  2. Swap 1 slice of white toast (2g) for 1 slice of seed loaf (7g)
  3. Swap 1 cup of orange juice (0g) for one medium-sized orange (3g)
  4. Swap 1 cup of cooked pasta (3g) for 1 cup of cooked wholewheat pasta (6g)
  5. Swap 3 cream crackers (30g) with cream cheese (1g) for 3 rye crackers (30g) with 2 tablespoons of hummus (7g)

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.