A healthy diet improves a person’s quality of life and wellbeing, and gives protection against chronic diseases. A key part of a healthy diet is dietary fibre: it supports digestive health and is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
Fibre can also help with the management of type 2 diabetes.
In this article, we’ll look at what dietary fibre is, how it benefits us and how we can make sure we’re getting enough.
What is fibre?
Dietary fibres assist digestive health by moving food through the intestines. Most of these fibres are carbohydrates that cannot be digested in the small intestine, so they pass into the large intestine, where they are broken down by gut microbiota (the bacteria that live in the digestive system). This process produces fuel for the microbiota and generates short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are good for bowel health and may even protect against bowel cancer.
There are two types of fibre—soluble and insoluble.
- Soluble fibres dissolve in water to form a sticky, gel-like substance in the stomach which slows down digestion. Sources of soluble fibre include plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, oats, barley and legumes.
- Insoluble fibre does not dissolve in water and stays intact as food moves through the gastrointestinal tract, adding bulk to its contents. This benefits bowel health. Sources of insoluble fibre include wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts, seeds, wheat bran and the skin of fruits and vegetables.
Benefits of a high-fibre diet for people with type 2 diabetes
As we’ll see in a moment, high-fibre foods can positively impact blood glucose levels, which can delay or prevent the onset of the complications of type 2 diabetes. A high-fibre diet is also helpful with weight management, which is beneficial in guarding against the complications that are associated with the condition. High-fibre foods tend to have a lower energy density, which means they provide fewer kilojoules per gram. Also, the gel-like substance that forms when soluble fibres mix with water slows the emptying of your stomach, increasing digestion time. This can result in a prolonged feeling of being full and a reduced appetite.
Eating a diet that is rich in fibre can bring many other health benefits, such as lowering the risk of:
- breast cancer
- diverticular disease
How to incorporate more fibre into your daily meals
In Australia, the recommended daily intake of dietary fibre is 25g for women and 30g for men. To get enough fibre every day, aim to eat a variety of wholegrain or wholemeal foods, at least 2 serves of fruit and at least 5 serves of vegetables, including legumes.
Here are some tips for incorporating more fibre-rich foods into your diet:
- Eat whole fruits and vegetables instead of drinking juice.
- Choose whole-grain bread, pasta and cereals instead of refined grains.
- Eat brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice.
- Add legumes such as lentils, beans and peas to your meals.
- Snack on nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
- Eat the peel from apples and pears.
You can find some delicious recipes here.
Fibre values on food labels
Most packaged foods are required by law to have a label with nutrition information so that people can make informed choices about what they eat. To find out how much fibre an item of food contains, you can check the Nutrition Information Panel on its packaging. Find the line on the panel that says ‘Dietary Fibre’ or ‘Fibre’. The amount of fibre per serving will be listed in grams (g). Aim for 3g or more per serve.
The impact of high-fibre foods on blood glucose levels
Insulin is a hormone that enables our cells to transform glucose into energy. Type 2 diabetes is a condition where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin and/or doesn’t use it properly. This leads to high blood glucose levels, which can damage the kidneys, eyes and nerves if left untreated over time. High blood glucose is also an important risk factor for coronary artery disease.
Soluble fibre plays an important role in blood glucose management. Its ability to slow down the rate of digestion prevents ‘spikes’ in glucose and a sudden, increased demand for insulin. Insoluble fibre’s capacity to add bulk to our faeces helps with passing solids, and a diet which has a mix of soluble and insoluble fibre is important for overall health. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that people with type 2 diabetes who ate 50 grams of fibre a day—particularly soluble fibre—were able to manage their glucose levels more easily than those who ate less fibre.
Potential risks and precautions for people living with diabetes when consuming high-fibre foods
As essential a part of a healthy diet as fibre is, it is important to take precautions if you decide to increase your consumption of it. A sudden rise in fibre intake may lead to gas, bloating and constipation. To avoid these problems, it can be beneficial to gradually increase your fibre intake and drink plenty of water to help push it through your digestive system.
If you are living with type 2 diabetes, healthy eating is an important part of managing the condition. It will help keep your blood glucose levels in your target range. This reduces your risk of developing diabetes-related complications.
High-fibre foods play a key role in a healthy diet.
The Life! program is a free program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. You can choose from a group course or the telephone health coaching service. Our experienced health professionals will help you make small changes to your lifestyle so that you can achieve your health goals.
The program is for people at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. If you are living with type 2 diabetes, Diabetes Victoria has other program and supports to help you.
Life! is funded by the Victorian government and managed by Diabetes Victoria. You can check your eligibility for the program here.