Fibre is essential for a healthy gut, with scientists now increasingly understanding how it feeds our beneficial gut bacteria – with all sorts of health benefits for us.
It is found in a range of nutritious foods, from grains such as oats, quinoa and millet to beans, pulses, fruit and vegetables. And it’s vital for a healthy stomach. In fact, scientists now understand more about how fibre feeds our good bacteria, which are vital for overall wellbeing.
What is fibre?
Sometimes known as ‘roughage’, fibre is made up of a group of substances found in plant foods. These include lignin, waxes and polysaccharides, such as pectin and cellulose. Most fibre passes through your digestive system, pushing food along and helping to keep bowel movements regular. That’s why, if you don’t have enough, you can become constipated.
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Your good bacteria needs fibre
But fibre has another important role – it acts as fertiliser for the good bacteria bugs in your belly. Yes, the idea that your stomach is teeming with bugs may come with a slight ‘yuck’ factor – but these bacteria play a crucial role in keeping you healthy. Your community of bugs is called the microbiome and it is unique to you.
Right from the beginning of life, everyone has differing levels of different bacteria, determined by lifestyle and environment. For example, someone who was breastfed as a baby has different gut bugs to someone who was bottle-fed. You can help friendly bacteria thrive by giving them the food they need to flourish – and that’s fibre.
Why bacteria matters
A healthy microbiome is important to keep your digestive system ticking over efficiently. But scientists are learning there are other health reasons to feed your gut bugs. Certain types of fibre are fermented in your large intestine by gut bacteria, producing short-chain fatty acids, which have been shown to help improve immunity, reduce inflammation in your body and even keep you slim. Resistant starch, another type of fibre, has also been shown to feed good gut bacteria. Studies suggest this starch may be linked with a lowered risk of obesity.
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Are you getting enough?
Unfortunately, in the UK, we don’t eat anywhere near enough fibre to keep our tummy bugs happy. We should have 30g of fibre a day but, on average, we only manage 18g – about 60% of what we should be aiming for. So our good bugs aren’t getting the fertiliser they need.
Boosting fibre and microbes
So, what should you eat if you want to boost your intake – and your gut bugs? You can find fibre in fruit and vegetables, particularly the skin, seeds and pith, and also in pulses, legumes and beans such as chickpeas, lentils and mung beans, as well as seeds and nuts. Wholegrains like oats, rice, quinoa, wheat, freekeh and millet are rich in fibre, too. Generally, ‘brown’ versions of foods – whether that’s pasta, rice or bread – are higher in fibre than the more processed white versions.
For a big gut-bug boost, try to include foods that contain beneficial bacteria – onions, garlic, artichoke, banana, asparagus and chicory are all good sources.
And aim for more resistant starch in your diet. You can find this at high levels in unripe bananas, lentils, potatoes, seeds, brown rice and pasta (wholewheat is best).
Go up gradually
Convinced you need more fibre? A word of warning before you start loading up on lentils, brown rice and veg. Lots of people find they get more wind when they suddenly increase their intake, which is why it’s a good idea to increase it gradually. This will settle as your gut gets used to your new way of eating. And check with your doctor or nutritionist if you have IBS. Guidelines from NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) state that, for people with IBS, it may actually be helpful to reduce high-fibre cereal-based foods such as brown bread and brown rice, as they are too much for a sensitive digestive system. But you could discuss other ways to pack it into your diet.
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Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please consult a doctor or healthcare professional before trying any remedies.
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