One statistic which never fails to amaze me is that 97% of Americans are fibre-deficient. I wouldn’t mind betting that the UK doesn’t fare much better. Most people who are fibre-deficient probably don’t realise it – chances are, you’re one of them. But if you’re not aware of the health benefits, you probably don’t feel motivated to eat more fibre. Let’s take a look at this vitally important and often overlooked nutrient. Be warned: we’re going to talk about bowel movements!
Disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist or dietitian, just someone with an interest in nutrition. I’ll back up what I say with sources. This article is not a substitute for medical advice.
What is fibre?
Fibre is the indigestible wall that surrounds plant cells, and thus it is only found in plant foods. Though it has no nutritional value, it’s vital for healthy digestion. There are two types – soluble and insoluble.
What does it do?
Most of us have a vague idea that fibre keeps us regular. But how does it do this? Insoluble fibre absorbs water and swells, effectively scrubbing our intestines as it passes through. This is important because letting food linger in the digestive system is not healthy. It can lead to discomfort, constipation and increased risk of bowel cancer.
Chronic constipation brings its own health risks. One of these is diverticulosis, a condition where repeated straining on the toilet causes pouches to form in the colon. It also increases the risk of hernias. Eating more fibre makes our stools larger and softer, and therefore easier to pass.
Discomfort on the toilet isn’t normal
In my teens, I suffered from IBS-type symptoms. I often had nausea and abdominal pain after eating, along with an upset stomach or constipation.
Like many people in our culture, I didn’t question this for a long time. Many of us have suffered uncomfortable bowel movements since childhood, so we think it’s normal. Though it is very common, it certainly isn’t healthy.
If you only take one thing from this article, make it this: pooing doesn’t have to be painful.
I changed my diet few years back, and can’t recall having a single painful bowel movement since. Though I can’t guarantee your experience will be the same, I believe most of us can at least improve our digestion.
Are you sold? Then let’s talk about ways we can add more fibre into our diets.
When I was suffering with IBS-type symptoms in my teens, I was eating what many Westerners would consider a healthy diet. My health-conscious mum prepared vegetarian meals at least a couple of nights a week. She made sure I ate a couple of servings of veg a day, and always gave me a piece of fruit to take to school. Junk food and processed foods were limited, and we often had whole grains rather than refined ones.
Though I may have been eating better than some of my peers, it wasn’t enough. Looking back, I realise I rarely even got five servings of fruit and veg a day. Bear in mind that five a day is the recommended minimum – in reality, we could benefit from eating far more. Read my guide to learning to love vegetables here. If you feel uninspired when it comes to adding more veg into your diet, check out my free vegan meal plan for tons of vegetable-based meal ideas.
As for fruit, reach for it every time you feel like snacking. Sprinkle berries on your breakfast, and experiment with canned, frozen and dried fruits. Choose smoothies over juice, as the latter has had most of the fibre removed.
Eat more whole grains
Refined grains like white bread, white pasta and white rice lose much of their fibre when processed. Whole grains have at least double the fibre, along with far more nutrients. Eating more whole grains is so easy – all you have to do is swap refined grains for their whole counterparts. Choose brown rice, wholegrain pasta and wholemeal bread. Be careful of bread sold as ‘brown’ – it often isn’t wholemeal. The same applies to multi-grain bread.
Choose a wholewheat cereal like Weetabix too – or if you want to go for the gold, have bran flakes. Bran is the outer casing of grains like wheat, which is stripped away in the refining process. It contains huge amounts of fibre and is bound to get your digestion moving in the morning! It can be pretty boring, so consider adding fresh or dried fruit to liven it up. Serve with plant milk for some extra fibre.
Limit animal products
Animal-derived foods contain no fibre whatsoever, so eating them slows down your digestion. Replacing meat with meat alternatives will boost your fibre intake. Even better, replace meat with beans and lentils whenever you can. The same applies to dairy and egg alternatives.
Someone who eats a fully plant-based diet (like me!) gets fibre in everything they eat. But you don’t have to go fully plant-based to notice the benefits.
Eating more fruit, veg and whole grains has numerous benefits beyond increased fibre intake. You’ll also be getting more water, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Foods high in fibre tend to be more filling, so you may even lose weight. They also contain no cholesterol and are low in saturated fat. Additionally, soluble fibre can prevent your blood sugar from spiking so much when you eat sugary foods.
Can I just take supplements?
You may be wondering if you can take fibre supplements to get the same benefits without changing your diet. Studies show that supplements are less effective than eating fibre in the form of food, and may have adverse side-effects. Besides, when you take supplements you miss out on the other benefits described above.
What if I get too much fibre?
Some people experience digestive discomfort when they start eating more fibre. This may lead them to conclude that they’re eating too much of it. In reality, it takes the body some time to adapt to a change in diet. This is likely the cause of any discomfort, and usually resolves itself within a few weeks.
I personally doubt whether it’s possible to get too much fibre from food, unless you overdo the bran. We evolved eating lots of fibrous leaves, roots, fruits and berries. Whole plant foods contain just the right amount of fibre for our bodies. One researcher even discovered an African tribe who ate so much fibre they could poo on demand!
One particularly interesting study ordered participants to eat 44 servings of veg and 20 servings of fruit a day (yes, really!). Unsurprisingly, they produced the largest bowel movements ever recorded in a dietary intervention. More importantly, they experienced only positive health effects. If they didn’t suffer from fibre overload, you probably won’t either. In the developed world, eating too much fibre is the least of our health worries.
I hope this has inspired you to eat more fibre. If you have any more tips, I’d love to hear them in the comments.