Dieticians warn of the hidden dangers of convenience foods

Boost fibre intake for lifelong health
Monday, May 13 2024

As time-stressed South Africans look to convenience foods to help cut down hours spent on meal preparation, two dieticians from Netcare Olivedale Hospital in Johannesburg have raised concern that a crucial component in our diets is being overlooked.

Dieticians Mariana Davel and Mbali Mapholi warn that dietary fibre plays a vital role in keeping us healthy, yet a staggering 87% of the overall population is not getting enough.

Industrially manufactured foods are often highly processed with many additives to produce highly profitable, convenient, and extremely palatable products. But, eating these foods frequently can come at a price, not measured in rands and cents,” says Davel, cautioning that a lack of dietary fibre can contribute towards serious health problems like abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, increased blood pressure, gastrointestinal disease, and cancer.

Realising the importance of fibre in our everyday diet, most countries now recommend an intake of approximately 25 to 35 grams per day for adults, she explains.

“High-fibre foods come from a wide range of sources, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. By choosing these foods regularly, you’ll help to ensure that you meet your daily fibre needs and make strides in preventing certain illnesses. You’ll also improve your overall well-being,” adds Mapholi.



The lowdown on fibre
“It’s important to be aware of why we need to eat the recommended amount of fibre each day and to know how to find out which foods contain the best sources of fibre. In this way, we can consciously seek out the foods we like to eat that contain a good amount of fibre,” Mapholi says.

“Making smart food choices and developing healthy eating habits can pay dividends in terms of health benefits.”

Fibre is a type of carbohydrate found in plant foods that cannot be fully digested by the small intestine and reaches the colon almost completely intact. “It is essential for the body to help regulate bowel movement, maintain a desirable level of friendly bacteria in the colon and provide a source of fuel for the cells in the colon. Even though it does not provide nutrients, it is still an important part of your diet,” Davel says.

“Soluble fibre, when ingested, forms a gel-like substance in the stomach and modulates digestive processes, helps lower blood sugar levels, and reduces cholesterol. Foods like oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, and carrots are excellent sources of soluble fibre and adding these to your diet can help maintain overall gut health. Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve in water and promotes healthy bowel movements, reducing constipation. Some examples are whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables like cauliflower, parsnips, green beans, and potatoes.”


Benefits of fibre
Fibre helps normalise bowel movements, aids in maintaining bowel health, and assists in controlling blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugar. It also helps achieve a healthy weight by making you feel full faster.

“A high-fibre diet may lower the risk of developing conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. It reduces cholesterol levels and inflammation and is crucial for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, which significantly impacts overall health, Mapholi says.

What is the correct amount of fibre (for an adult) to eat?
A dietary intake of 25 to 35g per day is recommended. “Consuming 400 to 500g of fruit and vegetables combined with the right cereals and grains will make up the required fibre intake. Excess amounts of fibre can lead to mineral malabsorption (calcium, iron and zinc), and diets in excess of 50g of fibre per day have been shown to have no beneficial effects.”

Why is it important to drink fluids?
Fibre is like a sponge. Without fluid, it stays hard. When you add fluid, it swells and becomes soft. This makes it easier for the digestive tract to move food down and out. If you eat fibre with no fluid, your stools will be hard. So, it is very important to drink at least six to eight cups of water daily. 

Which foods are high in fibre?
Fortunately, Davel and Mapholi say the list of high-fibre foods is extensive, offering a wide variety of options to suit most budgets, palates, and preferences. These options also provide an array of other nutrients, contributing to a balanced, nutritious diet.

Fresh fruit is bursting with vitamins and minerals that can elevate overall health, says Davel. “The natural sweetness offers a healthier alternative to processed sugary foods, while their high water content assists in hydration. Pears, strawberries, and bananas are particularly great fibre sources. Avocados, unusually high in fibre for fruit, also bring beneficial fats to the table. Including a variety of these fruits in your daily diet can ensure a balanced intake of nutritional fibre.”

Vegetables are a prime source of dietary fibre, contributing significantly to a healthier diet. “A low calorie and nutrient-dense option, they not only aid in digestion but also reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Including vegetables like peas, broccoli, carrots, and Brussels sprouts can ensure you get your daily required fibre intake. They’re also packed with various vitamins providing an all-around health boost.” Mapholi highlights the humble sweet potato, which she says is not only brimming with fibre but is also incredibly rich in vitamins like vitamin A and various minerals that contribute to overall health.

Legumes, which include beans, lentils, and peas, are a powerhouse of fibre intake, and they also serve as a rich protein source - good news for those following plant-based diets. “Consuming various legumes can not only increase your dietary fibre but also offer multiple nutrients such as iron, potassium, and folate,” says Mapholi. Beans serve as a significant source of both soluble and insoluble fibre, promoting good digestive health and helping maintain balanced blood sugar levels.”

Different varieties of beans, such as black beans, kidney beans, fava beans, and lima beans, are worth incorporating into your meals. Aside from being fibre-rich, they are also an excellent source of protein, making them particularly beneficial for vegetarians and vegans looking for alternative protein sources.

Grains, a staple food in many cultures, are an excellent way to ensure a regular intake of dietary fibre while also providing essential nutrients like B vitamins, iron, and magnesium. Whole grains like oats, brown rice, and quinoa are especially fibre-rich.

Nuts not only add fibre but offer a host of other nutrients, like healthy fats, proteins, and various vitamins and minerals, which contribute to overall well-being. “Almonds, pistachios, and pecans are particularly high in fibre. Incorporate them into your meals in moderation, as they’re high in calories. Eating a variety of nuts can ensure you receive a balanced mix of different nutritional benefits,” explains Davel.

Seeds, though tiny, add a fibre and nutritional punch. Packed with a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, they bring a significant health boost and texture to any meal. Chia, flaxseeds, and pumpkin seeds are the most fibre-rich options. Adding them to your smoothies, salads or yogurt can effortlessly up your fibre intake.

What are some high-fibre options for low-carb diets?
Vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are excellent high-fibre, low-carb choices. Avocados are fibre-rich and offer beneficial fats, making them a perfect low-carb option. Nuts and seeds like almonds and flaxseeds provide substantial fibre while keeping carb content low. They are ideal for snacking or as additions to salads, soups, and other dishes.

How can I increase my daily fibre intake?
Mapholi suggests a slow start: “Do it gradually to avoid possible side effects like bloating and flatulence. First, increase the intake of whole wheat products like bread and cereals. Then add fibrous fruit and vegetables, legumes, and, if necessary, digestive or oat bran. The body will adapt to an increased fibre intake, and the side effects will gradually disappear.”

  • Include generous servings of vegetables and salads, and aim for at least three servings of fresh fruit with skins and pips.
  • Select fibre from various food sources and only use a fibre supplement if recommended or prescribed by your doctor or dietician.
  • Start the day with a bran-rich breakfast cereal or cooked porridge, like oats.
  • Try to include a fresh raw salad in at least one meal daily. Fresh sliced fruit can be added for additional flavour and fibre.
  • Rather eat fruit than drink fruit juice.
  • Eat regular balanced meals and high-fibre, low-GI snacks.
  • Snack on homemade popcorn.
  • Read food labels. The fibre content in food is not always apparent. 

“A personal consultation with a dietician can help you find the dietary choices that match your body’s needs in a way that fits your lifestyle and preferences,” Davel concludes.


Notes to editor 

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Issued by:    MNA on behalf of Netcare Olivedale Hospital
For media enquiries contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and
Clementine Forsthofer
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