'Easy' diet addition 'helps prevent host of gut health issues'

Potatoes are high in fibre
-Credit: (Image: Pexels)

Fibre intake levels are languishing at around two-thirds of what they should be, despite mounting scientific evidence that this easy-to-source dietary substance helps to prevent a whole host of gut health-related issues. That’s according to a new report based on a consumer survey of more than 1,000 British adults aged 18 to 75+, entitled “Going against the grain", which lays out the huge health consequences of the great British fibre gap while providing a simple and effective solution.

GP Dr Gill Jenkins said: “This new report conducted on behalf of General Mills, the maker of brands like Fibre One, and based on UK dietary intake data and tells us that Brits are missing out on a third of the dietary fibre they should be consuming if they want to live long and healthy lives."

Fibre feeds the good bacteria in our gut and encourages bad bacteria and other toxins to move through the digestive system and out of the body. So not getting enough has major digestive health consequences.

Yet, as many as two-thirds (65%) of Brits weren’t confident in their knowledge about the link between fibre consumption and boosting friendly bacteria in the gut, according to the new survey. It perhaps won’t come as a surprise that most had experienced gut health issues, including wind (54%), bloating (46%), diarrhoea (43%), hard stools (42%), or constipation (40%). Additionally, more than a fifth (22%) admitted to having irregular bowel movements.

GP Dr Binita Kalaria said: “Research shows that eating fibre helps to normalise bowel function and prevent constipation by speeding up the time it takes for the gut contents to pass through the large intestine. Fibre, especially the type found in fruits, vegetables and oats, bulks up stools by boosting its water content which, in turn, makes it easier to pass. We need it in our diets to help prevent serious gut health issues."

Fibre is important for easing gut conditions including constipation, irregular bowel habits, irritable bowel syndrome and diverticular disease, but it’s important to check with your doctor first to rule out other medical causes.

Dr Jenkins said: “Fibre can be fermented and used for food by the gut bacteria. Certain types of ‘friendly’ bacteria love the fibre in our diets, which stimulates their growth and activities. This, in turn, benefits us, as the bacteria produce helpful substances.”

Indeed, a study in the British Medical Journal showed that high-fibre diets changed the makeup of the gut microbiome to encourage more helpful bacterial species. These ‘friendly bacteria’ release short-chain fatty acids and other beneficial compounds into the gut. These not only nourish our gut cells but have knock-on health effects such as:

  • Regulating appetite hormones

  • Enhancing the gut barrier against pathogens and foreign bodies

  • Lowering blood cholesterol levels

  • Reducing body fat storage

  • Calming down chronic inflammation

  • Lowering digestive cancer risk.

Besides this list of benefits, fibre could have an even more crucial role to play in digestive health. Despite 42,886 new cases of bowel cancer being diagnosed each year in the UK, more than a third of the respondents (36%) didn’t know that a lack of fibre could increase their risk of bowel cancer.

Dr Kalaria said: "This lack of knowledge of the link between low-fibre diets and bowel cancer is a big problem, and upping our intakes to the recommended 30g a day is an extra safeguard against bowel cancer. When the bacteria of the bowel come into contact with fibre, they produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid, which promotes bowel cell health. This reduces the chances of tumours developing."

Dr Jenkins added: “Fibre also increases stool frequency and bulk, as well as diluting their contents. This means that potentially carcinogenic substances, such as acrylamide from burnt foods or preservatives in cured meat and fish, are removed from the bowel more quickly.

“It’s not the evidence for fibre that’s lacking, but the ways it’s communicated. It’s vital that we encourage everyone to get more fibre into their diet and, crucially, give them the tools to do that easily within their busy lives.

"Indeed, two-thirds of the survey respondents (66%) said they would be more likely to eat extra high-fibre foods if a health professional said it would help their digestion. That’s why it’s important for nutrition and health experts to spread the word about the benefits of fibre.”

Five ways to fill up on fibre

GPs Dr Gill Jenkins and Dr Binita Kalaria clearly understand the importance to our digestive health of meeting fibre recommendations. Here, they offer five simple tips for getting more fibre into our diets.

  1. Mix and match: “Don’t bore your tastebuds with the same breakfast every day. Go for higher fibre options by ringing the changes with the type of loaf you buy each week or the type of high-fibre cereal you stock up on, adding a serving of fresh or frozen fruit each time,” said Dr Jenkins.

  2. Switch it up: “If you’re used to white bread, pasta, and rice, ease yourself in gently. Start by swapping white bread for half and half, and gradually move to whole grain varieties. Where pasta is concerned, besides regular wholegrain, there’s a huge variety of different types to try, from chickpea to lentil, to buckwheat,” said Dr Kalaria.

  3. Add a flourish: “There are several simple ways to enhance mealtimes with high-fibre add-ons. For instance, you could top porridge with chopped nuts and dried fruits or dress up a salad with colourful roasted veg and crunchy toasted seeds,” said Dr Jenkins.

  4. Bean feast: “ Protein is another important nutritional constituent of mealtimes. Beans are not only a good source of protein, they’re also rich in fibre. So, why not swap out some of the meat in your next stew, casserole, curry, or chilli with a tin of beans. Besides being beneficial to your health, it’s likely to save you money,” said Dr Kalaria.

  5. Drink up: “This last tip is especially important for supporting healthy fibre intake. Don't forget that higher-fibre diets require us to drink plenty of fluids to keep things moving smoothly through the digestive system. Water is always the best option,” said Dr Kalaria.