Our fast paced lifestyle leaves us little time to devote to food preparation and planning. So it is easy to see why the sales of convenience foods, such as frozen meals and take-away, are at an all time high. Even though many of these foods may tout claims such as “98% fat free” or “Low Carb”, they are often lacking in dietary fibre and can be “jam packed” with nasty additives. Consuming a diet high in these foods can over time result in a poor bowel environment, causing a lack of energy and eventually disease, as our body is unable to function properly.
When our gastrointestinal tract is functioning correctly, waste products are eliminated entirely and efficiently, ensuring that tissues remain healthy and beneficial bacteria live in harmony. However, if our large bowel becomes constipated or sluggish, waste products can build up and be reabsorbed. This pollutes our internal tissues and organs, increases tissue acidity and provides an ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria and fungi.
Some problems linked with inadequate fibre and/or poor bowel health:
- Excessive flatulence due to poor digestion and unbalanced bowel flora
- Constipation, diarrhoea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- A build up of metabolic waste products causing symptoms such as fatigue, headaches and skin conditions such as acne and eczema
- Greater exposure to toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides and carcinogens (cancer causing)
- High cholesterol levels
- Allergies and food intolerances
- Auto-immune diseases
- Depression and mood disorders
- Obesity – studies are showing that poor bowel bacteria can actually make us fat and furthermore fibre literally swells up in water, decreasing appetite
- Hormone imbalances – hormones are detoxified by the liver and eliminated through the bowel, however, a poor bowel environment can lead to unneeded hormones being reabsorbed back into the body
- Increased risk of diseases including colon cancer, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulits and diabetes
A healthy colon requires plenty of fresh water, both soluble and insoluble fibres, as well as prebiotics (food for your good bacteria), probiotics, specific amino acids (most notably glutamine), vitamins and minerals. In other words, it isn’t sufficient to eat a bowl of All-Bran (mostly insoluble fibre) for breakfast, to support long-term bowel health.
What is fibre and what does it do?
Dietary fibre consists of indigestible plant compounds that travel through our gastrointestinal tract absorbing water, providing nutrients for beneficial bacteria and aiding elimination of wastes. Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve in water, whereas soluble fibre forms a gel in water, thereby taking longer than insoluble fibre to travel through the gastrointestinal tract. This crucial difference gives each type of fibre very different beneficial properties.
• Lowers cholesterol – reducing the risk of heart disease and arteriosclerosis
• Delays glucose absorption – which helps to stabilise blood sugar levels which is beneficial for sustained energy, improved concentration and reduced risk of diabetes
• Enhances immune function through production of short chain fatty acids
• Softens stools and increases faecal bulk – thereby reducing constipation and the incidence of haemorrhoids
• Improves regularity by decreasing bowel transit time – instead of dissolving in water, insoluble fibre absorbs water, thereby speeding up the elimination of waste products
• May inhibit colon cancer and reduce toxicity of heavy metals and pesticides – bowel regularity decreases contact time of carcinogens with the walls of the intestine
• Cleans the bowel wall, softens stools and increases faecal bulk – thereby reducing the risk of constipation, diverticulitis and haemorrhoids
What are the best sources of fibre?
Contrary to what is portrayed by the media, you do not need to be consuming high amounts of grains to get enough fibre. In fact, the best types of fibres are consumed by eating a variety of vegetables (both cooked and raw), fruit and legumes (if you tolerate them). In fact, as long as you are eating a diet containing adequate fruit (limit to 2 pieces daily, as it is high in sugar) and rich in vegetables (the mainstay of your diet and a minimum of 7+ serves), you do not need any grains at all as a source of fibre or other nutrients.
What are the best prebiotics?
Prebiotics feed the good bacteria in your bowel. Now, you have to be careful here, as many so called “prebiotics” not only feed your good bacteria but also feed bad bacteria. This is only a problem if your intestinal flora (meaning the bugs in your gut) is already out of balance, however, the problem is that in western societies, it is unlikely that you will have a balanced gut flora. This is most notably due to three main reasons – too much sugar, not enough fibre and overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial agents.
‘True’ prebiotics that only feed your beneficial bacteria consist of oligosaccharides, which are types of sugars that cannot be broken down by our own gut enzymes, thereby providing food lower down for our gut flora. Fructo-oligosaccharides or FOS for short is found naturally in foods such as leeks, onions, garlic, chicory, beans and legumes, and can also be bought as a dietary supplement. Two others called galactooligosaccharides (or GOS) and Lactulose are both derived from dairy – so not suitable if you have a dairy allergy. These can also be bought as dietary supplements. Lactulose is also used in higher dosages as a laxative (as the sugars aren’t broken down, they encourage water to stay in the intestines thereby decreasing constipation).
As with any prebiotic, start at a very low dosage and gradually increase, otherwise you will feel bloated and gaseous.
And finally the most important nutrient for gut health, WATER!
Our bodies are up to 70% water and we cannot live longer than a few days without it, however, most of us are not drinking enough. Aim to drink 1.5 – 2.5 litres of water daily, more if you are exercising. Tea, coffee and alcohol do not count towards this tally and will actually dehydrate your body, so try to limit their consumption, and replace the water that they strip from your body by consuming twice their volume in extra water.