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Image of granola yogurt and blue berries

What is fibre, and why do we need it?

There's more to fibre than brown, chewy, worthy food. Research has shown that it is in fact essential to your health.

An article in the Lancet Medical Journal1 shows that as well as keeping your blood and cholesterol levels down, fibre reduces the chances of heart attacks, strokes and diseases such as type-2 diabetes. Here, nutritionist Rob Hobson explains what this life-saving nutrient is, and how you can get enough of it from your diet.

What foods contain fibre, and what is insoluble fibre and soluble fibre?

There are two types of dietary fibre - insoluble and soluble. Don't worry too much about these terms, though, as most high-in-fibre foods contain both. Insoluble fibre is what used to be called 'roughage'. Foods high in insoluble fibre include wheat bran, dried fruit, corn, wholegrain cereals, wholegrain bread, nuts and seeds. It passes through the gut without being broken down, which helps keep our digestive system working properly and our bowel movements regular.

Soluble fibre, so called because it absorbs water, is a gluey substance found in foods such as oats, barley, rye, beans, lentil, bananas, pears, apple, carrots, potatoes and golden linseeds. It helps hydrate our intestines and keeps stools soft.

What can fibre help?

Dietary fibre plays a key role in a healthy digestive system, which is the bedrock of good health. Its benefits don't stop there, however. Fibre is also known to help reduce cholesterol, as well as the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular disease, and diabetes and bowel cancer. Fibre can also help weight loss by bulking out the diet and promoting satiety - the feeling of fullness - between meals. And, according to a study in The American Journal of Epidemiology, a high dietary fibre intake is linked to a lower risk of death from any cause.2 The study also showed a 10% reduced risk of dying for every 10g increase in fibre intake per day.

How much fibre per day should we eat?

The current UK recommended intake for fibre is 30g per day, but the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) of the UK population shows that, on average, women consume about 17g, and men about 21g a day. Teenagers have the lowest intake at only 15g of fibre per day. Researchers from the University of Otago, New Zealand now say there are health benefits for pushing past the 30g mark, too.3

Fibre could improve your gut health

Certain fibres like inulin help the bacteria in your gut to flourish. For example, foods rich in compounds called lignins and oligosaccharides (found in bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, garlic and oats) act as prebiotics in the gut, which 'feed' your gut bacteria and help them function normally.

Easy food swaps to up your fibre intake

Instead of Eat
White bread, pasta, rice, breakfast cereals Wholegrain varieties
Juices Whole fruits
Mayonnaise and condiments Hummous and other bean-based dips
White potatoes Sweet potatoes
Chocolate bars Bars or bounce balls made from dried fruit, nuts and seeds

Five foods high in fibre

  • All fresh fruit and veg
  • Canned beans, pulses and lentils
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Wholegrains, corn and pseudo-grains (quinoa, amaranth)

If you're still struggling to reach the recommended fibre intake, consider a supplement.

Rob Hobson MSc RNutr is a Registered Nutritionist who has worked with some of the UK’s largest food and health companies and performs training in the public health sector (including government agencies and the NHS). Rob contributes regularly to UK press publications and has a monthly column in Women's Health magazine.

Find out more at Rob Hobson's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.