Low-carb diets including keto and paleo have exploded in popularity as their followers chase fast weight loss. But if they’re poorly planned, such diets have a major potential downside: they may not provide enough fibre.
Carb-rich foods are the major source of dietary fibre, which basically does two things: it helps to shunt things along your digestive tract (which is why many constipation remedies are fibre bombs); and it feeds the “good” microbes in your gut, boosting your overall health.
A major new review published in The Lancet confirms the benefits of a high-fibre diet, finding that eating 25-30g fibre a day is linked to a significantly reduced risk of non-communicable diseases.
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The review, which analysed 185 observational studies canvassing almost 5000 people, suggested that those who ate the most fibre had lower odds of premature death, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer, and were also more likely to have a lower body weight, cholesterol and blood pressure.
Higher fibre intake — upwards of 30g a day — was linked to even lower odds of these diseases.
“Fibre-rich whole foods that require chewing and retain much of their structure in the gut increase satiety and help weight control and can favourably influence lipid and glucose levels,” said study co-author Professor Jim Mann, from New Zealand’s University of Otago, in a statement.
“The breakdown of fibre in the large bowel by the resident bacteria has additional wide-ranging effects including protection from colorectal cancer.”
According to a 2018 analysis in the journal Nutrients, Australian adults consume about 20g fibre a day — the same amount as the average adult around the world. “Fibre is a nutrient of concern in Australian diets, with most children and adults falling short of recommendations,” noted that study’s authors.
The Lancet paper identified the benefits of fibre from whole foods — so synthetic fibre (which is added to some snack foods — there’s even a fibre-enriched variety of Coca-Cola) and extracted fibre (such as powders) may not deliver the same health benefits.
Rich whole-food sources of fibre include vegetables and fruit (particularly with the skins left on), pulses (aka legumes or beans), and especially whole grains (such as oats, quinoa, couscous, and brown bread, pasta and rice).
“Our findings provide convincing evidence for nutrition guidelines to focus on increasing dietary fibre and on replacing refined grains with whole grains. This reduces incidence risk and mortality from a broad range of important diseases,” said Mann.
(FYI, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council already prescribes 25-30g fibre a day for adults, and the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend 4-6 serves of whole and high-fibre grain foods a day.)
Mann and his co-authors noted that the only potential downside of higher fibre consumption might be for those who have low iron or mineral levels — whole grains may further reduce iron levels.
And another well-known downside to fibre is that adding it to your diet too fast can lead to what’s politely described as gastrointestinal distress.
The takeaway from this study is that, if you experiment with a low-carb diet, it’s critical it provides enough fibre (a dietitian can provide advice on how to do this).
Carbohydrates are a diverse food group, so saying “carbs are good” or “carbs are bad” is as meaningless as saying “food is good” or “food is bad”. Rather, some types of carbs are better for you than others. Keep the nutritious carbs (from those fibre-rich sources listed above) and cut the less nutritious ones (such as white breads, pasta and rice, and refined sugars — basically, less of what you get out of a box or packet).
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