‘Eat fruits and leafy vegetables for good digestion’ is a saying that we all have heard quite often. The importance of fibre-rich fruits and leafy vegetables has been passed on through generations. However, many are unaware of the health benefits of dietary fibre other than digestion.
Dietary fibres are those elements of plant-based foods that our body is unable to digest. The food we eat consists of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and fibres. The former three get absorbed and converted as energy for daily bodily functions. Fibres, on the other hand, stay intact throughout the digestion process.
The positive effects of dietary fibres can be better understood by classifying fibres.
These fibres easily dissolve in water and get converted into a gel-like substance. They slow down the digestion speed and thereby delay absorption of glucose. Hence, they increase the effectiveness of insulin. They are also known to obstruct the absorption of fats which stabilises blood cholesterol and enhances the absorption of vitamins and minerals.
These fibres are bulky, rough, and consist of cellulose. They stay intact and act as scraping agents and smoothen the intestinal walls. Thus, they help make stools soft and bulky and improve bowel movements.
Beans, fruits, oats, dry fruits, barley, psyllium husk, peas, and carrots.
Seeds, brown rice, whole wheat, leafy vegetables, cabbage, and tomato.
Now that we have a fair idea about how the different fibres work, we can look at the various health benefits in depth:
A study shows that increasing fibre content in meals helps people lose weight. Fibrous foods are also difficult to chew and are filling, which prevents overeating. Fibres are low on calories and bind with sugar and fats as it proceeds in the digestive tract. Since digestion and absorption is delayed, they bring about satiety, making us eat less and stay satisfied for a longer period of time.
Soluble fibres absorb fats and other harmful compounds. Thus, they keep the blood free of contaminants. Insoluble fibres are responsible for the speedy exit of waste. They, thus, throw out pesticide toxins, mercury, lead, and other chemicals quickly and do not allow them to mix internally. They also act as a gastrointestinal scrub and keep the digestive tract free of toxic compounds. High fibre intake is recommended to purify the blood, keep the skin healthy, and have higher energy.
Fibres are a recommended diet component to prevent constipation, as they make the stools easier to pass. Besides, fibres are good food for the good bacteria in the intestines. When fibres ferment in the bowels, they turn into nutritious meals for the bacteria, who then-secret beneficial short-chain fatty acids. These acids help reduce gastrointestinal inflammations. Overall, fibres reduce the risk of conditions such as – diverticular disease, hiatal hernias, haemorrhoids, and gastroesophageal reflux diseases.
For every 10 grams of fibre you eat, you reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by 10%. Soluble fibres are fermentable. They get fermented at the colon and hence keep the area healthy. High fibre diets are known to reduce the risk of cancers related to the alimentary canal.
Fibres absorb excess cholesterol and throw it out of the body before it enters blood and blocks arteries. Therefore, they lower the LDL (Low-density lipoprotein), the bad cholesterol content in the blood. They also increase the HDL (High-density lipoprotein), the good cholesterol content in the blood. Dietary fibre and blood pressure are also related, as fibres help shed abdomen fats and control blood pressure. High fibre intake improves metabolism and prevents stroke, diabetes, and coronary heart disease by 40%.
As seen earlier, soluble fibres slow down the glucose production process and enhance the effects of insulin. As fibres help keep blood sugar levels and weight at a stable point, they reduce the risk of Type-2 diabetes. If you are a person with diabetes, increasing fibre content in meals will control your blood sugar levels.
To summarise the benefits, we can say that fibres keep diseases at bay, improve the regular body functioning, and keep us healthy, both physically and mentally. They keep our bodies free of toxins and make us feel active, which helps us live longer and in good health.
Though dietary fibres are healthy, people must consume them in a limited amount. Eating fibres more than recommended can cause several problems like dehydration, bloating, abdominal cramps, and diarrhoea. While consuming low fibre food can harm the physical as well as mental well-being.
The recommended dietary allowance of dietary fibre is different for different age groups. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the ideal amounts for each age is-
When the fibre intake exceeds 70 grams for a day, the person will suffer from the side effects. For some people, the fibre threshold is at 40 grams. One can easily meet fibre requirements by consuming half the grains as whole grain and at least 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
Word of caution- when dietary fibre is taken as a supplement to treat constipation it has to be accompanied by adequate amounts of water. Failing which the stools can bulk up and can cause impaction.
Fibres are a highly ignored component of our daily diet. Due to their traditional popularity as digestive agents, many tend to underestimate their importance. Especially in the world of highly processed food and fast foods, dietary fibre gets neglected. However, there is a rising awareness about their various health benefits.
A few minor dietary changes, including vegetables, berries, and fruits, can help increase fibre intake. You can also add oatmeal, cereal, legumes, and whole grains to your daily diet. Choose fruits as snacks instead of sugar-based treats. But remember, it is essential to consume them responsibly and also stay physically active for healthy living.
Author : Sripriya Ravi, MSc,M.Phil,MS, Dietitian/Diabetes Educator, Diahome