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Dietary fibre

Fibre is an important part of our diet. It is sometimes called roughage and its scientific name is "non-starch polysaccharides" (NSP). These are all terms for the same thing: complex carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the body.

What is fibre?

Fibre is made up of a number of complex carbohydrates. There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. There are no calories, vitamins or minerals in fibre and it is not digested when we eat it.

Where is it found?

Fibre is only found in the cell walls of plants. Foods such as meat, fish and dairy products contain no fibre at all.

What does fibre do?

Fibre is essential for healthy bowel function. When fibre passes through the bowel it absorbs a lot of water, so it increases the bulk of the waste matter. This also makes the waste softer and increases the speed and ease with which it passes through the bowel.

Why is fibre important?

A diet rich in fibre has many health benefits. It reduces the risk of a number of bowel problems - some of them quite serious. These include constipation, haemorrhoids (piles), diverticular disease and cancer of the colon or large bowel.

In addition, soluble fibre helps to stabilise blood sugar levels because it slows down the rate at which glucose is absorbed into the blood stream. It also helps to lower blood cholesterol levels, which is important for reducing the risk of heart disease.

Furthermore the feeling of fullness which fibre produces can help people who are trying to lose weight to control their appetite.

How much fibre should we eat?

In the UK most people eat far too little fibre, on average about 12 grams a day or less. Ideally, adults should aim for an intake of around 18 grams a day, or even a little more. Eating more than 32 grams of fibre a day do not offer any additional health benefits.

A word of caution: if you would like to increase your fibre intake from a relatively low level, it is best to do it gradually. This is because a sudden increase may produce wind, bloating and stomach cramps - which can be rather uncomfortable for a little while. A gradual increase will avoid this problem.

What foods contain fibre?

All plant-based foods will contain fibre. Some more so than others. Good sources of fibre are fruit, vegetables, wholegrain rice and pasta, wholemeal bread, many breakfast cereals, nuts, seeds and bran.

Particularly good sources of soluble fibre are fruit, vegetables, beans and oats.

References

Department of Health. Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom. Report of the Panel on Dietary Reference Values of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy. HMSO. 1991.
Department of Health. Nutritional Aspects of Cardiovascular Disease. HMSO. 1994
Department of Health. Nutritional Aspects of the Development of Cancer. HMSO. 1998
NHS Direct Online Encyclopaedia. Diverticulitis. Read 08/10/2002.

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