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High fibre diet weapon against chronic disease

by Doris Penner

The beginning of a new year is a good time to change lifestyle habits if you are concerned with pursuing optimum health. This is indeed a worthy resolve since healthy people feel better, have more energy and deal with fewer illnesses. The first thing to examine is diet, and while a myriad of areas could be addressed, one that is of paramount importance and lays the basis for the health of the body and its various functions is the intake of adequate fibre. This will help maintain normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels, support bowel regularity—which has multiple ramifications—and help keep off unwanted pounds.

First, it is important to understand what dietary fibre is and how it works in the body to achieve health benefits. In very broad terms, dietary fibre is derived from edible plants commonly consumed in the human diet, but not broken down by digestive enzymes. This sets fibre apart from other nutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals) found in food plants which are digested, absorbed in the bloodstream and carried to all parts of the body. While there is some controversy on the exact definition of fibre, food scientists agree that dietary fibre is an important weapon in the battle against heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes and obesity. 

Have different functions

It should be noted at the outset that fibre is divided into two categories, soluble and insoluble, which have different functions, and while we name various foods as being particularly high in one or the other type, most foods provide both. Soluble fibre—sometimes termed “viscous fibre” because it dissolves in water and leaves the digestive tract slowly—helps lower serum cholesterol levels by reducing first of all, the absorption of cholesterol in food. In addition, this viscous fibre forms a complex with bile acids manufactured by the liver which includes cholesterol, thus removing it from circulation (bile acids are instrumental in digesting fat).

Soluble fibre also normalizes blood glucose levels by slowing the rate that food leaves the stomach—which promotes a sense of satiety to help prevent overeating and delays absorption of glucose) and by increasing insulin sensitivity. These two roles help prevent and treat types 2 diabetes.

Insoluble fibre as the name suggests moves through the intestines virtually intact. However, on its journey through the digestive system, it adds its bulk to waste materials (feces) to move them through more rapidly and also helps “sweep” toxins from the intestinal wall. Bowel regularity is associated with a decreased risk for colon cancer and hemorrhoids. In addition, certain types of insoluble fibre referred to as “fermentable” fibre help maintain healthy populations of friendly bacteria in the gut, imperative in keeping at bay pathogenic (disease-forming) bacteria.

Internal waste materials

It should be noted that fibre is important not only to deal with internal waste materials resulting from physiological processes such as energy production and digestion, but also from external sources which involve ingestion of pollutants from food and environment. Since fibre is a powerful tool in your attempt to maintain top health, it is essential to consume a high-fibre diet with a balance of 75 percent insoluble and 25 percent soluble fibre. To best accomplish this, eat a large variety of foods containing appreciable amounts of fibre. The recommended daily intake is 25 to 35 grams.

Foods considered excellent or very good sources of fibre are legumes (navy beans, black beans, lentils), unrefined grains to include bran (wheat, barley, oatmeal, flax), fresh vegetables (highest in fibre are spinach, Swiss chard, kale, green peas, carrots, winter squash, broccoli) and fruits (best ratings are for berries, pears and oranges).

People who have more trouble with elimination than others (for whatever reason), or those who feel they want to get a jump start on a high fibre diet may wish to try a natural supplement available to help clean out the digestive system. An example is psyllium seed, a bulk-forming laxative which is easy on the body and works quickly and effectively.