I'm going to make a prediction for the next hot label claim. I'm semi-serious about this; it's partly a claim I would really like to see more, instead of silly things like "no refined sugar" and "natural", which are just nonsense. It's also a claim I truly think we will start to see on more and more foods in coming months and years as the importance of this particular thing starts to sink into our general consciousness. It's this: high fibre.
Fibre hasn't been a particularly sexy thing to talk about in recent times. We kind of know it's important – it keeps us regular, right? – but it hasn't seemed as important as other things, like cutting sugar.
But now's the time to think about adding something in, rather than cutting something out.
Fibre is in the spotlight: a study published in the Lancet in January, led by researchers at Otago University, found people who eat higher levels of fibre and whole grains have lower rates of non-communicable diseases compared with people who eat less. The researchers looked at both observational studies and clinical trials conducted over nearly 40 years; both types of studies show the same thing: the more fibre, the more benefit. And of course, the opposite is true: the less fibre, the worse outcomes.
Those who ate the most fibre had a 15-30 per cent decrease in death from heart disease (and in fact death from any cause) compared to people who ate little fibre. Eating fibre-rich foods also reduced the incidence of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
In real terms, that means 13 fewer deaths and six fewer cases of heart disease per 1000 people.
How does fibre work? It's basically a type of carbohydrate, found in all plants. There are quite a few different sub-types of fibre, and different types do different things, which is why we need a wide variety of high-fibre foods. Ideally, we don't want to rely just on vegetables for fibre, or just on grains, for example. We need both of these, and lots of other fibre-rich foods as well.
Soluble fibre – found in oats, barley, fruit, vegetables and legumes – slows down the time it takes for foods to pass through the stomach and small intestine, helping nutrients to be absorbed. Insoluble fibre – found in whole grains – speeds up the transit of waste through our large intestine, bulks up and softens stools and reduces the time toxins stay in the bowel.
There's another important type of fibre: resistant starch. As the name suggests, it's resistant to digestion and is instead fermented by the good bacteria in the colon. Resistant starch is being studied for a range of potential benefits, including lowering inflammation and improving insulin sensitivity. Resistant starch is found in interesting places: cooked and cooled potatoes are a great source; so are green bananas.
Fibre is super-important to our gut bacteria. When it's fermented in the colon it produces short-chain fatty acids which provide energy for the good bacteria in our gut and help to keep it in top shape.
So, how much fibre should we be getting? The magic number for fibre intake seems to be around 30g a day – although again, the more, the better. But at 30g, according to the latest study, the benefits really start to kick in.
It's estimated most of us probably are not hitting that target; the average intake is around 20g. But 30g is not too tricky to get if we pay attention.
We probably just need to think about variety: lots and lots of plants, in lots and lots of different types. And think about it in every meal and snack. The good thing about focusing on fibre, is that it likely means we're focusing on eating whole, unprocessed or minimally-processed foods.
A breakfast, for example, of wholegrain oat porridge with fruit, nuts and seeds will set you up for a high-fibre day.
A lunchtime salad bowl that includes some chickpeas, lentils or beans; lots of veges and a whole grain such as quinoa or barley adds to the variety and volume of high-fibre foods. Dinner that continues that theme with some starchy and green veges, and snacks of fruit, nuts and veges should see you easily hit that magic target.
A note about cereals: they're one product on which we often see "good source of fibre" claims. But scientists believe there's a difference between fibre that's inside intact whole grains – as in oats, say – and fibre that's inside cereal that's been processed into shapes or flakes. The jury is officially out, but I'd say if in doubt, go whole.