For a long time, fibre from fruit and vegetables was thought to be a useless component of food. We cannot digest it because we lack the enzymes to break it down and it was thought to just pass through our bodies without doing anything – good or bad. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to remove the useless component from grains by refining them, creating white rice and white flour. Today, we know that fibre is indispensable for good health, especially digestive health. Some types of soluble fibre dissolve in water and turn into a gel-like substance (soak some flaxseeds or chia seeds to observe the process), which makes stool soft and easier to pass. Soluble fibre also mops up cholesterol from the gut, thus preventing it from being reabsorbed and recirculated. Insoluble fibre bulks up stool and helps it move along our digestive system. While we cannot digest fibre, our gut bacteria can. They synthesize valuable nutrients for us, which we then absorb through the gut wall. Our gut flora needs fibre, and we need our gut flora. Research has shown that a lack of fibre may contribute to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and other health issues. If you would like to learn more about fibre, it’s benefits and the different types, click here to read Lisa Patient’s article on fibre in the Optimum Nutrition Magazine.
In the summer, when there is an abundance of fresh fruit and veg, crunchy crudités, green smoothies and colourful salads make it easy to keep up a good fibre intake. In the winter, not only is the choice of fibre-rich fruit and vegetables much reduced, but we also don’t fancy salads all that much. Luckily, that’s no reason to miss out on fibre. Fruit and vegetables do not have to be consumed raw, nor cold, for us to benefit from their fibre. Soups, stews, fruit compotes and roasted veg work just as well, if not even better. Raw vegetables are not just more difficult to chew but can also be hard on the gut. Cooked and perhaps even pureed vegetables are already partially broken up and therefore much easier to digest.
If you look at the produce section of your supermarket, you may find that it always looks the same in any season because we can get anything we want at any time, regardless of the weather. But if you subscribe to a vegetable box, such as Riverford or Abel and Cole, the difference is quite noticeable. At this time of year, it features mainly representatives of the cabbage family, onions, leeks, carrots and other roots. And that’s a fine selection of fibre right there. Your gut bacteria will be delighted. For more reading on local seasonal food, click here.
Cruciferous Vegetables – the cabbage family
This is the seasons for white, red, pointed and Savoy cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and Cavolo nero. Every now and again, you might even find kohlrabi in your vegetable box. This weird-looking vegetable is lovely chopped into batons, then steamed or roasted. All brassica – as cruciferous vegetables are also known – are not just a great source of insoluble fibre. They also contain several components that are thought to be protective of cancer and are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin K and magnesium.
Carrots, parsnips, swede, turnips, celeriac and beetroot are abundant now. Roots are cheap, easy to use, full of flavour and nutrients and of course colour. If you regularly read our blog, you’ll know how important it is to eat a rainbow of vegetables. Together with your leafy greens, red, orange, purple, and white roots help you cover your requirement for antioxidants and phytonutrients. If you think roots are boring, you may want to reconsider how you cook them: They don’t too well when boiled in water, but bake, roast, sauté or stew them, and you’ll have a whole new experience. These vegetables are perfectly suited for soups and stews, our winter comfort foods. Add protein in the shape of beans, chickpeas, meat or fish to slow down the glycaemic response (the rate at which your blood glucose rises after eating) as roots are higher in sugar than other vegetables. Beans, chickpeas and lentils are excellent sources of soluble fibre, too.
One root vegetable – Jerusalem artichokes – contain fermentable fibre, making them an excellent prebiotic food, i.e. food for your gut bacteria.
Onions and Leeks
They, too, are at their best now. Like Jerusalem artichokes, leeks and onions contain fermentable fibre and are counted as prebiotic foods. Apart fibre, onions provide vitamin C, B6, chromium and the phytonutrient quercetin. Onions help lower blood sugar, blood lipids and blood pressure. They help strengthen the immune system and fight cancer. Leeks have very similar properties, but you’d have to eat more of them than onions for the same effects. Both leeks and onions work well with root vegetables and add sweetness to the meal.
Apples and Pears
These fruits are available now and a good source of a type of soluble fibre called pectin. Both are delicious cooked as well as raw and make a fresh, fruity addition so soups as well as winter salads.
Our Top Tips for an optimum fibre intake
- If you eat grains, always choose the wholegrain option – wholemeal flour, wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta, rolled (not instant) oats. Wheat and oat bran are particularly high in fibre and make a good muesli. The fibre from oats and oat bran contains a type of fibre called beta-glucan, which is known to pick up excess cholesterol in the gut.
- 7-a-day: aim high at five portions (one serving is about a handful) of vegetables and a maximum of two servings of fruit a day. Not all varieties contain a lot of fibre – top of the list are Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage, onions and apples.
- A handful of nuts a day not only provides protein and good fats but also adds to the fibre count.
- Pulses provide more fibre and slow down the glycaemic response if your meal contains starches from roots.
- Drink 2-3 litres of water per day. Soluble fibre binds a lot of water. If you are well hydrated, it will ease constipation, but if you are dehydrated, soluble fibre can make it worse!
- Start slowly: If you are not used to a high-fibre diet, the surge in fermentation by the gut bacteria may produce more gas than you are used to. Increase gradually, and your body will soon adjust.
For ideas on what to do with winter vegetables, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter in time the next issue!