Most people in the UK do not eat enough fibre1. In fact, some studies suggest as few as 9% of Brits are achieving the recommended fibre intake.2
If you are worried you’re not getting enough fibre, but unsure of the implications, or of how to up your intake, we hope this guide will make everything clearer.
Why do we need fibre?
Fibre, also known as dietary fibre or ‘roughage’, is a type of carbohydrate found in foods including fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It is one of the nutrients our bodies need to function.
Unlike other carbohydrates, our bodies actually can’t digest fibre (at least not very well). But this doesn’t mean we don’t make use of it.
Rather than providing energy, fibre passes through our body and helps to regulate our digestive system, including our bowel movements.
The health of our digestive system has a huge effect on our overall health, meaning that our fibre intake can affect much more than just our stools.3
Soluble and insoluble fibre
There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fibre dissolves in water, insoluble fibre does not, and they do slightly different things in your body.
However, most foods that contain fibre contain some of both types, so it’s not necessary to worry about them separately.4
What happens if I don’t eat enough fibre?
The most obvious side effect of a lack of fibre is constipation.
Fibre keeps our stools soft and easier to pass. It helps waste to move through the digestive tract more quickly. A lack of fibre can seriously impact how regularly and how easily you empty your bowels.4
Beyond constipation, a lack of fibre can have serious long-term health implications. Eating enough fibre offers important health benefits that you’ll be missing out on.
What are the health benefits of dietary fibre?
Studies have found that people who eat a lot of fibre are healthier in a number of ways.
Although more research needs to be done into the exact reasons why, evidence shows that eating more fibre can help to:
- Reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke
- Lower the risk of circulatory disease
- Lower your cholesterol levels
- Reduce your likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes
- Promote the levels of good bacteria in your gut
- Reduce the risk of certain cancers including bowel cancer5
As well as reducing the risk of these conditions, eating more fibre has the potential to make you feel better and boost your energy levels.1
How much fibre should I be eating?
Current recommendations are that adults should eat 30g of fibre a day. Average intakes are around 20g, so most of us should be eating more than we do.4
Is 30g of fibre a realistic target?
You may be thinking to yourself that increasing your intake to 30g from the national average of around 20g is quite a challenge.
Try not to think too much about immediately reaching 30g but instead make small changes that will gradually take you towards that target.
The British Nutrition Foundation commissioned a study into the viability of the 30g recommendation and found that the number is achievable in a healthy diet but that, for most people, it will require conscious effort.
The main approaches they recommend in order to eat enough fibre are:
- Base your meals around starchy foods (ideally wholegrain varieties)
- Eat eight or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day
- Pick fibre-rich snacks
The study also noted that these approaches should naturally improve your diet overall.6
Why are people not eating enough fibre?
Some people have suggested that the popularity of low-carb diets is partly to blame with our failure to eat enough fibre.
However, others argue that we can get most of our fibre from vegetables and therefore restricting our intake of starchy carbohydrates doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t get enough fibre.
It’s likely that the reasons our diets are low on fibre are the same reasons we have dietary issues in other areas, such as eating too much salt or fat or not eating enough vegetables.
For example, lifestyle changes mean we are preparing fewer meals at home and eating more processed foods. With the advent of convenience foods, it’s no longer necessary to be able to cook or to know about food in order to get by. This too could play a part.
Perhaps another reason people don’t eat enough fibre is that they don’t know how important it is or how much they should eat. Following from that, many people don’t know where to find it.
Whatever the reasons behind people’s low fibre intake, everyone should be aiming towards 30g a day, meaning most people should look to eat more than they currently are.1
How can I get more fibre into my diet?
Although it is possible to buy fibre supplements, it’s best to get the fibre you need from your food.
Fibre supplements, which come in tablets or powder, can affect how some medicines work. They can also affect the way you absorb certain vitamins and minerals.
Therefore unless you have been recommended them by a doctor or dietician, you should seek professional advice before taking them.
For most people, eating more whole foods that are naturally high in fibre is the best approach.5
Which foods are high in fibre?
We’ve put together a list of high-fibre foods to help you find ways to boost your intake without drastically changing your diet or habits. You’ll notice that these are all plant foods, because fibre comes from plants.
Good sources of fibre include:
Starchy foods / carbohydrates
Starchy foods are a good source of dietary fibre. Opt for wholegrain varieties wherever possible and follow the government guidelines on healthy portions.
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat bread
- Brown rice
- Potatoes – and sweet potatoes – with their skin on
- Rye bread
- Wholegrain breakfast cereals
Not all vegetables are created equal when it comes to fibre. Some that are considered particularly high in fibre are:
- Brussels sprouts
That doesn’t mean you should forget about the vegetables not on this list, of course.
All vegetables have nutritional benefits and the best advice is always to eat a lot and eat a variety.
As with vegetables, certain fruits contain more fibre than others. These include:
- Berries – raspberries, blueberries, strawberries
Of course this doesn’t mean other fruits aren’t good for you!
Nuts, seeds and grains
Add a portion of grains to your salad or sprinkle a handful of nuts onto your breakfast for an easy dose of fibre.
- Pearl barley
- Chia seeds
Beans and pulses
This list is not exhaustive by any means, but hopefully it shows that fibre can be found in a variety of places.
A good way to up your fibre intake is to swap some of your usual foods for high fibre alternatives or add them to your regular meals. For example:
- Choose wholegrain instead of white bread
- Choose a whole grain breakfast cereal (you could even top this with nuts and fruit for even more fibre)
- Keep the skin on your potatoes
- Add an extra portion of vegetables to your evening meal, whether on the side or mixed in
- Pack your sandwiches with salad
- Swap crisps and dips for wholemeal crackers or oatcakes with homemade hummus or smashed avocado
Can eating more fibre help me to lose weight?
Yes and no.
A recent study did find that participants lost weight simply by committing to eating more fibre.
However, in the same study, participants on a more rounded diet plan that focused on various healthy changes lost more weight.7
So, there’s little proof that upping your fibre intake (without any other dietary changes) is a particularly effective weight loss method.
However, if you do want to lose weight and are making changes to your diet in order to do so, you should consider eating more fibre too.
Fibrous foods make you feel fuller for longer without containing lots of calories. So eating more fibre can help you to cut down your calories without being hungry all the time.
What to eat in a day to get 30g of fibre
Here’s one example of how you could achieve your recommended daily intake of fibre.
Remember, you should always speak to your GP before making any significant dietary changes.
A bowl of porridge topped with half a sliced banana, a handful of almonds and around 80g of raspberries.
A sandwich made from two slices of wholemeal bread, half an avocado (sliced or smashed), a few slices of lean ham or turkey and a generous helping of salad.
One portion of our high fibre spaghetti Bolognese recipe.
Rye crispbreads dipped in low fat hummus.
Total: Between 30 and 35 grams of fibre.
This is just one suggestion, but we hope it shows that you can achieve your fibre goal (and your 5 A Day!) without having to adopt a complex or unusual diet.
To find out more about fibre and healthy nutrition, book a dietary consultation today.