It seems that barely a day goes by without another story in the media about a miraculous new diet promising to transform our health. Quit sugar. Cut the carbs. Eat more fat. Don’t eat breakfast. Always eat breakfast. Eat mindfully. Eat slowly. Chew more. Eat like the Swedish. Or the Danes. Eat more swedes. Don’t eat Danish.
Never before have we been bombarded with so much information about how our food affects our health. Yet despite our fascination, there is one important message that seems to have been lost. There is a nutrient almost universally acclaimed as being beneficial, and yet rarely mentioned. I say it is time to bring it back into the debate, to raise awareness of its benefits and the dangers of not getting enough. It’s time we started talking about fibre.
For those of us of a certain age, we probably have at least some awareness that fibre has a number of important health benefits. The F-Plan diet, created in 1983 by Audrey Eyton, was the mainstay of many healthy eating regimes, with high fibre foods gaining the same sort of shiny health halo that high protein options do today. Sadly, in recent years, awareness of the benefits of fibre has declined, replaced by other more headline grabbing dietary fads.
How much should we eat?
In 2015, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) produced a report for the government on carbohydrates and recommended an increased target for fibre consumption of 30g per day. Although of huge importance, the 30g per day recommendation went largely unreported, mostly because the same report created a large volume of headlines for its recommendations on sugar consumption. Perhaps not surprisingly, diet survey data shows that on average, men are 50 per cent short of meeting the target and women nearly 75 per cent.
One reason for this might be the foods that constitute the best sources of this vital nutrient. Although there are reasonable of amounts in fruits and vegetables, even if you eat the recommended five portions a day (and most people do not), the average amount of fibre you would be getting from them is only around 10g. In terms of affordability, palatability and likelihood of being eaten, the best sources tend to be starchy carbohydrates like pasta, rice, potatoes and bread. A portion of whole grain pasta has about six to seven grams of fibre. Two slices of wholemeal bread four to five grams. A jacket potato five to six grams.
If we can just try to consume a variety of fibre-containing foods, and stop the needless demonization of perfectly sensible dietary choices like pasta and potatoes, then we would probably be a lot better off
Unfortunately, starchy carbohydrate foods like these are frequently depicted as “unhealthy”, with a number of vociferous campaigners advocating low carb, high fat diets as the path to perfect health. And this has resulted in the majority of people not achieving anywhere near 30g of fibre. This is why Audrey Eaton spent many years campaigning against low carb diets like Atkins, because for all their ability to create weight loss in some people, there is a risk that dangerously low fibre consumption will result. Although weight is important, it is not the only measure of health, and dietary advice has to address this complexity.
WHY'S IT GOOD FOR YOU?
Fibre is any form of carbohydrate that cannot be digested by human enzymes. It is present in differing quantities in most plant based foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. Although much fibre travels straight through us, coming out the other side virtually untouched, some types, known as fermentable fibres, are broken down by the bacteria in our guts. It is this fermentation that can lead to the production of noxious gasses, responsible for some of the epic bottom turbulence associated with the F-plan and other high fibre diets.
A lack of fibre can cause constipation, but more importantly, it has an important role in the prevention of various diseases of the gut including bowel cancer. A high fibre diet can help reduce cholesterol, decrease your risk of becoming overweight and has even been shown to lower the risk of diabetes. There is also an increasing body of evidence that it might have a role in boosting our immune system and improving bone health. Although there are a few specific medical conditions that require people to limit their intake, for the vast majority, eating more fibre is one of the best dietary changes that we can make to improve our health.
Why don’t we eat enough?
Given the proven benefits of increased consumption, it is a great shame that the message struggles to be heard. Perhaps in our modern image obsessed society, this is not so surprising. The main benefits of fibre are not glowing skin, shiny hair or perfect abs in 30 days. The legally allowable claims for products high in fibre include “increases faecal bulk”, “creates changes in bowel function” and “improves stool transit time”. These are things that those involved in the marketing of food rarely want to talk about.
But if we can just try to consume a variety of fibre containing foods, and stop the needless demonization of perfectly sensible dietary choices like pasta and potatoes, then we would probably be a lot better off. Restrictive eating is never healthy in the long term, and only if we can bury some of our reluctance to talk about our bowel movements will we be able to hold those peddling such exclusion diets to account. We need to learn to embrace (not literally) our bowels and start talking about fibre again. Perhaps it’s time to start a new movement.