Weave fibre into tapestry of a healthy diet

Health benefits of a diet high in fibre include reduction in cholesterol and protection against certain cancers

Fibre provides a source of energy for the friendly probiotic bacteria living in the large intestine that in turn may help to boost the immune system

Fibre provides a source of energy for the friendly probiotic bacteria living in the large intestine that in turn may help to boost the immune system


Fibre is a vital but often forgotten nutrient for health. It plays a role in digestion and in reducing our risk of heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer. Fibre also provides a source of energy for the friendly probiotic bacteria living in the large intestine that in turn may help to boost the immune system.

Currently it seems there is a growing fixation on increasing protein for its satiety value when slimming and during post- training regimes to support muscle recovery. Protein has, of course, a powerful influence in both these strategies but it’s not magic. Hiking up your protein consumption to the detriment of your fibre-rich carbohydrate intake is not a good tactic.

Many of us would do well to cut down our sugar intake, but this doesn’t mean “cut out all carbohydrates and replace them with proteins”.

It means you should limit, or cut out if you desire, foods containing added sugar (sometimes called free sugars) found in biscuits, buns, cakes, jams, confectionery, sugar-containing soft drinks and fruit juices (especially sweetened juices). Instead, enjoy high-fibre carbohydrates such as whole-grain cereals, pulses (such as kidney beans, lentils or haricot beans), potatoes with skins, vegetables and fruits as part of meals and snacks. The serving sizes of these foods will depend on your food preferences, how active you are or whether you wish to lose weight.

Just a few weeks ago the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), a committee of independent experts that advises the government, issued a draft report on carbohydrates and health which is open for discussion and consultation until September.

The British Nutrition Foundation reported that it was pleased the report emphasised the importance and benefits of fibre, describing it as a “Cinderella” nutrient in the last number of years.

You won’t find fibre in the guideline daily amounts box on the front of food packs to help you make a quick and easy comparison between two similar foods. Instead you have to turn the packs over and read the small print in the nutrition box.

Sometimes you might notice a nutrition claim on the pack, such as “high fibre”. This means the food must contain at least six grammes of fibre per 100g. Animal foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and diary are not fibre providers. Neither are highly refined carbohydrates. When advocates of high-protein diets tell me they don’t eat carbs, I’m always relieved to hear they make exceptions for great carbohydrates such as porridge, sweet potato and quinoa.

According to the latest National Adult Nutrition Survey, published in 2011, current intakes of fibre are generally inadequate in Irish adults, with more than 80 per cent not meeting the European Food Safety Authority recommendation of 25g a day.

Similar intakes are seen in the UK and yet the SACN is proposing that the adult population lowers its consumption of free sugars to 5 per cent of energy and increase its fibre to 30g per day. This would mean radical dietary changes for many.

The SACN reports that the evidence from prospective cohort studies indicates diets rich in dietary fibre are associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases, coronary events, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon and rectal cancer. Small changes to the types of foods we choose regularly can add up to a significant increase in fibre intakes.

Digestive health

Insoluble fibre bulks up stools and helps waste move through the digestive tract more quickly. This is good for the gut and it helps prevent constipation. If you suffer from constipation it is important to drink plenty of fluids, be as active as possible and to increase the fibre in your diet.

Gradually increase foods providing insoluble fibre such as wholegrains, high-fibre wheat bran breakfast cereals, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Soluble fibre found in oat bran, oatmeal, legumes (peas, beans and lentils) and fruits (apples and strawberries) may also help this process by making the stools softer and easier to pass. Soluble fibre also helps in managing diarrhoea. Many foods contain both soluble and insoluble fibre.

Certain types of fibre are fermented by particular gut bacteria. They produce substances that appear to be good for gut and immune health.

High cholesterol and heart health

Soluble fibres such as those found in oats and pulses can help reduce blood cholesterol. Trials in subjects receiving oat fibre and beta glucan indicate this cereal fibre component has beneficial effects on blood cholesterol and blood pressure.

The trial doses of oat bran and beta glucan used generally exceed levels found in a typical diet. However, with future product development opportunities we may be consuming these ingredients in novel foods.

Colon and rectal cancer

Consuming a fibre-rich diet protects against colon and rectal cancer. This may be because fibre causes waste to move more quickly through the gut and also due to the fermentation of certain fibres by friendly bacteria in the gut.


Soluble fibre in oat bran, legumes, pectin (found in apples) and root vegetables is considered especially helpful for people with diabetes.

Soluble fibre helps control blood glucose by slowing stomach emptying, delaying the entry of glucose into the bloodstream and lessening the rise in blood glucose after a meal.

Because fibre slows the digestion of foods, it can help lessen the sudden spikes in blood glucose that may occur after a meal containing very little fibre. A lifetime of erratic blood glucose spikes increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and more than doubles the risk of stroke and heart disease.

Paula Mee is a dietitian and member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI). She works in Medfit Proactive Healthcare medfit.ie and tweets at @paula_mee

10 ways to increase fibre intake

1. Always have breakfast. Look for cereals that are sources of fibre (more than 3g of fibre per 100g) or high in fibre (6g of fibre per 100g).

2. Add seeds. Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and linseed are all good. You can try them whole or milled. Add them to breakfast cereals, yoghurt, homemade bread or sprinkle them over salads.

3. Eat more beans. Beans and lentils are very high in fibre, especially soluble fibre. A tin of chickpeas, kidney beans or butter beans contains about 20g of fibre. Try soups made with beans and lentils, add beans to a salad, add lentils into soups, stews and casseroles.

4. Add vegetables. As a good rule of thumb, salad or vegetables should make up at least a third of your lunch and a third of your dinner.

5. Eat fruit. A piece of fruit will give you about 2g of fibre. Aim to have 2 pieces of fruit every day – this can add 4 to 6g of fibre.

6. Choose wholegrain flour and breads.

7. Eat potatoes with skins. Most of the fibre in a potato is in the skin so try potatoes baked, boiled in their jackets or as wedges baked in the oven with a little olive oil and some herbs.

8. Try some brown rice or wholewheat pasta. Switching the family from white rice (0.5g per serving) to brown rice (2g per serving) helps to boost fibre levels.

9. Snack on nuts and dried fruit. These make a great alternative to crisps and sugary snacks in between meals. Nuts and raisins are high in calories; however, a handful of nuts and raisins is a good snack that will help to boost your fibre intake.

10. Drink water. Fibre works by soaking up liquid in your bowel and making everything soft and easy for you to pass. However, you need to add water for this to work, as well as the fibre. You can also use non-caffeinated herbal teas such as peppermint or chamomile if you find it hard to drink water. Fibre tips from INDI (indi.ie)