It Takes Two: A Lesson on the TWO Types of Fibre You Need for Good Health

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Does this look like a woman with a cholesterol problem? Brenda Strong is a longtime vegetarian and yoga instructor (as well as an actress -- she was Mary-Alice Young on "Desperate Housewives"). Given her healthy lifestyle, Strong was shocked when a checkup revealed elevated cholesterol levels. "My doctor told me to cut out red meat and start excercising, but I was already on top of all that," she says. "I didn't know what else I could do to get my cholesterol down to normal."

Turns out Metamucil was the solution to Strong's health dilemma. In 30 days of regular use, her cholesterol readings dropped significantly, to normal levels. But why? Because the supplement is a source of psyllium, a soluble fibre.

what do you know?
After meeting with Strong, I asked a lot of people what they knew about fibre. Turns out most know it's important. In fact a survey by Metamucil and Ipsos Reid suggests that 96% of Canadians know that fibre is part of a healthy diet -- but only 49% know exactly what and how much fibre they need. The folks I asked thought they needed bran and maybe some broccoli.

Not a single person, including friends who, like Strong, struggle with genetically high cholestrol levels, knew we need two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble.

which fibre does what
Well, one person I asked knew. "Insoluble fibre is bulk or roughage. Largely undigestible, it ushers food through the intestinal tract efficiently and quickly," says Jennifer Grochocinski, a doctor of naturopathic medicine at Continuum Wellness in mid-town Toronto, and Meridian Wellness in Richmond Hill.

"Soluble fibre has all the blood-sugar and cholesterol-lowering properties," she says. "When combined with water it forms a gel, which helps slow digestion so you feel fuller longer and gives your system time to absorb nutrients." As well, it ferments, which promotes the growth of healthy bacteria that further improves digestion. (Yogurt with active bacterial cultures also helps the quality of healthy intestinal bacteria for better digestion, by the way.)

"Soluble-fibre fermentation also produces short-chain fatty acids which the intestine cells absorb to keep them healthy," explains Grochocinski. "It helps lower cholesterol in two ways: 1) It grabs cholesterol that is released into your digestive tract with your bile and helps to transport it from your body through your bowel movements, and 2) one of the short chain fatty acids produced from the fermentation of the soluble fibre tells the liver to decrease the amount of cholesterol it produces."

Simply put, soluble fibre does all the complex work; insoluble fibre keeps things moving along efficiently. "Insoluble fibre prevents waste and toxins from sitting in your system too long," adds Grochocinski. "You body might absorb it; you don't want that."

sourcing your insoluble and soluble fibre
We kinda know where to find the insoluble stuff: whole grains, cereals, vegetables and the skin of certain fruit.

But where do we get the soluble? In fruit, legumes, flax, oats, psyllium, barley and beans -- conveniently some of these sources also contain insoluble fibre. Most of us can get enough of both in a balanced diet.

"Low-carb diets can be problematic, though," warns Grochocinski. "Fibre is a carbohydrate, but it's a good one."

When it comes to eating more fibre, clearly it's not just about eating more bran and more broccoli. We need to balance soluble with insoluble. And unless we want to bloat or become uncomfortable gas bags, we need to up intake slowly and drink two litres of water per day. Try herbal or green tea if water at this time of year doesn't appeal. (Alert: recipes for delish muffins with both types of fibre are here on BestHealthMag.ca.)

are supplements necessary?
But do we need fibre supplements such as Metamucil or Benefibre (which contains no thickening or discernable flavour)?

"If you're dealing with a medical condition, you need something with a therapeutic dosage higher than you can get through a good diet," says Grochocinski. For people with dangerously high levels, supplements can be a way to normalize things quickly, and of course, they can serve as a diet safety net when we get crazy busy.

"But most of the time, I just have patients add a tablespoon or two of freshly ground flax seed to their diet -- cheap and effective."

I don't know about you, but whether in food or supplements, I'm stoked to find a helpful cleaning crew that won't take a huge bite out of my budget.

Metamucil is available at drugstores and mass retailers, and at Well.ca (free shipping in Canada).