Dr Justine Butler, Viva!’s Senior Health Researcher, helps make sure you’re getting enough fibre and from the right sources...
There are three different types of carbohydrates found in food – sugar, starch and fibre.
Fibre is the name for the large group of complex carbohydrates that we cannot digest and even though we don’t digest it, fibre is a very important and beneficial part of our diet.
It keeps our digestive system healthy, encourages ‘good’ gut bacteria, improves our energy metabolism by slowing down sugar absorption and helps in healthy weight management.
It can reduce high cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and stroke and lowers the risk of some cancers, particularly bowel cancer, and diabetes.
Are we getting enough?
In 2015, the government increased the recommended daily amount of fibre from 18 grams a day to 30 grams. Generally, we consume much less than that.
In 2018, the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that the average intake in adults was 19 grams per day, well below the recommended amount
Children under the age of 16 don’t need as much fibre as older teenagers and adults, but they need more than they’re currently getting:
• 2-5 year-olds need about 15g
• 5-11 year-olds need about 20g
• 11-16 year-olds need about 25g
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On average, children and teenagers are only getting around 15g or less of fibre a day.
There are two types of fibre.
Soluble fibre is normally a soft, moist fibre – the type found in fruit (not the skins), vegetables and pulses, such as peas, beans and lentils.
It dissolves in water to form a gel, which can make you feel fuller for longer after a meal and makes stools soft and easier to pass.
It is sometimes called a ‘prebiotic’ – food that feeds the friendly probiotic bacteria that inhabit your gut. They ferment it to produce health-promoting compounds, such as the short chain fatty acid propionate, which have cholesterol-lowering, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as reducing fat storage.
The best sources are wholegrains, fruit, pulses and root vegetables.
Insoluble fibre is mainly the outer shell of seeds, grains, fruits and vegetables – a tougher, less digestible fibre, it can be stringy or coarse and doesn’t dissolve, but absorbs water, increasing stool bulk and helping to keep you ‘regular’.
Insoluble fibre is essential for your digestive system to work properly and can help prevent/treat constipation, diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Other benefits come from it being partially fermented by gut bacteria. The best sources are wholegrain foods, breakfast cereals, unpeeled fruit and dried fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Which foods are the best?
Fibre is found in unrefined plant foods such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, but never in animal foods – meat and milk contain none.
A varied vegan diet, containing the foods above, will contain plenty of both types of fibre. The claim that a food is high in fibre may only be made if it has at least six grams per 100 grams of food.
Getting enough fibre is easy, without having to splash out on expensive foods.
Include plenty of fruit and veg, such as carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweetcorn, beetroot, broccoli, spring greens, cabbage, strawberries, raspberries, apples, bananas and oranges. Aim for at least five portions a day, but preferably more.
Choose wholegrain foods such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, high-fibre breakfast cereals and oats; avoid white bread and pasta as these contain less fibre.
Pulses such as peas, chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils are all great sources, so add them to soups, stews, salads and pasta dishes.
Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, pecans and walnuts, provide fibre, as do sesame and sunflower seeds. Swap processed snacks for oatcakes, vegetables sticks and fruit – dried fruit is a good option.
A handful of unsalted nuts can provide up to three grams of fibre.
There are many ways to tweak your normal meals to boost the fibre content. Try adding a sliced banana, a handful of berries or chopped nuts to cereal or muesli.
Add a small handful of almonds or a spoonful of ground flaxseed to smoothies. With jacket potatoes, the skin is the important bit as it provides a good source of fibre.
Evening meals might include a vegetable curry with brown rice or lentil bolognese with wholewheat spaghetti.
If you’re a pudding person, go for something with fruit, such as apple crumble made with raisins and an oaty topping; chop fruit into a vegan yoghurt or try a fresh fruit salad with dates and pistachios!
Variety is the key. If you eat a varied vegan diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrain foods, pulses, nuts and seeds, you will get all the fibre you need.
Viva! Health is a part of the charity Viva!, Europe’s largest vegan campaign group. They monitor scientific research linking diet to health and provide accurate information on which you can make informed choices about the food that you eat. www.vivahealth.org.uk