The role of fibre goes beyond keeping our digestive tract in order. It can also help with weight loss or maintenance, control blood sugar, lower cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Fibre is a type of carb that occurs in plant-based foods. Most carbs get broken down into glucose, but fibre remains intact while passing through the digestive system. Eating fibre keeps you full longer and regulates blood sugar levels by slowing down the rate at which digestible carbs is absorbed into the bloodstream.
Also, some types of fibre contain prebiotics that promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which is necessary for numerous bodily functions, such as maintaining our nervous system.
However, a lot of us aren’t hitting our daily recommended amount of fibre — 20 grams for day for women and 26 grams for men. One in four Singaporeans experience chronic constipation. If you’re one of them, it’s time to start adding fibre to your diet. And that starts with making smarter food choices. Here are some that have proven effective.
1. Get a good mix of fibre
Dietary fibre, derived from plants, is divided into two main groups: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fibre absorbs water as it passes through your digestive tract, softening stool so that it can be passed out more easily, thus easing constipation. Soluble fibre can be found in fruits (oranges, bananas, apples), starchy carbs (sweet potatoes), legumes (beans and peas), barley and oats.
Insoluble fibre, on the other hand, does not absorb water and passes through the digestive system in more or less its original form. However, it increases stool size and bulk, thus promoting regular bowel movement. Insoluble fibre can be found in whole grains such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, cereals, nuts and seeds.
Therefore, whole foods (food that has been processed or refined as little as possible) contain either type of fibre that is necessary to keep things moving smoothly.
2. Go for whole grains
Unlike refined grains such as white rice, pasta, and white bread, whole grains go through minimal processing and remain largely intact. Refined grains are stripped of their vitamin-rich germ and fibre-rich hull, which allows the grain to last longer but also contain much less nutrition. All that remains is a fast-absorbing carbohydrate that can cause drastic fluctuations to your blood sugar levels.
Swap refined grains for whole-grain versions such as brown rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, barley, millet, quinoa, amaranth or bulgur wheat.
3. Load up on greens
Aside from lowering your risk of chronic illnesses and cancer, vegetables are also low in calories and high in nutrients, including fibre. Eat a mix of starchy and non-starchy ones to get a good balance of soluble and insoluble fibre, and make sure you get a variety of vegetables to reap the array of nutritional benefits.
Have a salad or a bowl of vegetable soup before every meal to get in your intake. Eating your greens before your main meal has also been shown to control your appetite so you don’t overeat.
4. Snack on fruits
Fruits such as apples or pears are a handy snack to carry around. The skin of fruits also provide insoluble fibre that add bulk to our stool, and the flesh provide soluble fibre, some more so than others. For example, one pear offers five grams of fibre, but a cup of watermelon offers only one gram. Berries, bananas and apples are other high-fibre fruits to munch on. As a snack, the fibre from fruits, when paired with food that contains protein or fat, such as cheese or nut butters, helps to keep us full.
5. Eat it, don’t juice it
If fruits are good for me, can I have them as juices? The answer, unfortunately, is that fruits are better than their juices. Sure, cold-pressed juices may still contain micronutrients, but most of the fibre is found in the pulp. By drinking fruit juices, you’re getting only the sugar and missing out on the fibre. (Even though vegetable juices contain less sugar than fruit juices, they also offer much less fibre than you would get from eating vegetables.)
Plus, fruit juices are usually made with more than one serving of fruit, so you’ll be consuming far more sugar than you would if you ate the fruit.
6. Snack on nuts and seeds
Nuts are little nutrient powerhouses that provide heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, protein and fibre. One ounce of almonds (about 24 of them, approximately a handful) contains three grams of fibre, on top of essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E and magnesium. You can easily toss them into your salad or yoghurt for extra crunch.
As for seeds, chia seed tops the list in terms of the amount of fibre provided. Apart from protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, it also brings 11 grams of fibre per ounce as each seed is 95 per cent soluble fibre. Other seeds such as sesame and flax also offer similar nutritional benefits and help promote colon health.
7. Load up on legumes
Legumes such as beans, lentils and peas are rich in fibre, as well as carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals. A cup of cooked beans can meet up to 75 per cent of your daily fibre needs.
Instead of having meat, which contains difficult-to-digest saturated fat and protein, have a cup of beans instead. Doing so can help reduce your risk of chronic diseases and increase your lifespan, because of positive impact on microorganisms in the gut.
To increase your intake of legumes, try having bean dips such as hummus during snack time, top your salad with lentils, kidney beans, or chickpeas, or have a cup of cooked beans as a side in your meal.
8. Have your avocado and eat it
The millennial favourite, avocado and toast, does in fact bring many health benefits to the table.
Avocados are one of the most nutritious fruits to have. Its creamy flesh is rich in not just monounsaturated omega-3 fatty acids but also fibre. Half an avocado provides five grams of fibre, and one full avocado can offer up to 18 grams.
Apart from using avocado in place of butter on toast, you can add mashed or sliced avocado to your salad, add it to your smoothie, or have it as a dip. However you choose to have it, your digestive tract will thank you for it.
9. Choose high-fibre flours
Baked goods usually get a bad rep for being too “heaty” and a culprit of constipation. They also contain butter and refined flour that can cause inflammation, adding to intestinal stress. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When baking, instead of using white flour, use whole-wheat pastry flour that has thrice as much fibre as refined flour. Other options include coconut flour, which has 11 grams of fibre, and soy flour, which has five. Non-wheat options such as buckwheat, barley, almond and hazelnut flours have approximately three grams of fibre per ounce, considerably more than the 0.8 grams per ounce in white flour.
10. Kick-start your day with cereal
Quality breakfast cereals typically contain at least 10 grams of dietary fibre per 100 gram serving. Look for cereals that include “whole grain” or “bran” on the box, and that contain both whole grains and fibre. Balance it out with some slow-digesting protein (eggs) and carbs (fruit), which are digested slowly and maintain consistent blood sugar levels.
Alternatively, you can add a few tablespoons of wheat bran to your regular cereal for extra fibre, or eat your cereal with yoghurt to sneak in some probiotic goodness.