Don’t eat enough fibre? Here’s why you should start
You probably think about fibre at a very specific time: when things aren’t, you know, moving. You dash out to get a deep brown cereal and ponder the whole-grain pasta offerings. Maybe a chalky elixir from the drugstore enters the picture. When things resolve, those roughage-heavy choices get moved to the back of the cupboard.
It’s time to embrace fibre full time
“It’s almost like a renaissance in fibre research right now,” says Jens Walter, associate professor at the University of Alberta, who’s working on a human trial using dietary fibre and other aspects of the gastrointestinal microbiota. While we’ve long known that this dietary element helps digestion, there’s also strong evidence showing fibre helps prevent heart disease. And now, emerging research connects it to more health conditions such as cancer, asthma, arthritis and even a longer lifespan.
“The more research we do on fibre, the more we realize it’s really got a holistic, full body impact that makes your diet better and improves your health in more ways than you could have imagined,” including reducing inflammation in the body and impacting numerous organs, says Christy Brissette, a registered dietitian and president of 80 Twenty Nutrition in Toronto.
But very few of us are getting enough
Like sleep and exercise, fibre is like a magic health bullet. Unfortunately, Canadians don’t sleep or exercise enough, and we sure don’t eat sufficient fibre. While Health Canada suggests women eat 25 grams of fibre every day and men take in 38 grams, the average is close to 10 to 15 grams.
However, Walter says humans, before the advent of agriculture, used to eat as much as 150 grams a day, thanks to their foraging diets. (Not much meat or fish, but a lot of fruits, grasses, seeds and unprocessed grains.) “We’ve evolved with a high intake of dietary fibre and we rely on it for a number of physiological, metabolic and immunological functions. Over the last hundred years, we’ve lowered this amount, which has impacted our health,” he says.
Why fibre is so key for bodily functions
We need different types of fibre for our bodies to function optimally: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fibre is the roughage you may associate with whole grains, but it’s also hidden in nuts and some fruits and vegetables, particularly peels. It helps with digestion, but also keeps you feeling full after eating. A 2015 study found those with insulin resistance who ate a diet rich in fibre lost nearly as much weight as those on a complex heart-friendly diet — and were more likely to stick to it. (Are you eating enough?)
Importantly, this type of fibre has proven links to colon cancer prevention. A 2009 study that followed 2,000 people with precancerous polyps over four years found a 35 per cent decreased risk for recurrence among those who ate the highest fibre diet.
Then there’s soluble fibre: it comes in grains such as oats, but also legumes, seeds and produce. It’s been proven to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Both types of fibre together have a big impact on heart health. A 2014 Harvard study connected high fibre intake via cereal grains with higher survival rates in a large group of people who had suffered heart attacks.
The microbiome link you need to know about
But newer lines of research link fibre to a wide range of health conditions. Walter says the connection lies in our digestive tracts. Fibre acts as a prebiotic in our guts, nurturing a microbiome — a stew of microorganisms that, through a complex series of processes, supports the immune system, cleans up cholesterol, balances the body’s insulin and reduces inflammation throughout the entire body.
In fact, scientists are finding a link between fibre intake and diabetes, allergies, asthma, arthritis and more, noting cultures that still eat ancient diets don’t develop these conditions. The impact is so wide-ranging that a 2016 study of a group of older adults found that those who reported eating the most fibre — about 29 grams per day — were healthier overall than those who reported a lower fibre diet.
Walter says health recommendations have yet to influence our diets, so he hopes to see the food industry fortify more foods with fibre. “There’s no real scientific hurdle to do this,” he says.