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By Nadia Marshall
This is a copy of Nadia’s Nutrition Column for Nova Magazine, published in Oct 2014
What’s the latest in food fashion this season? High fibre diets! Yes, you read that correctly, high fibre diets are back in vogue (not that they were ever really out of vogue but people haven’t been talking about them much for a while). The resurgence of interest in fibre is partly thanks to a recent two part ABC Catalyst program called “Gut Reaction” which took a fascinating look at the relationship between diet, gut bacteria and good health.
The program presented a variety of scientific research indicating a healthy gut biota can decrease our propensity for (or even heal) many common diseases including asthma, allergies, ulcerative colitis, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, emphysema and MS (1&2). The simple formula presented by Catalyst went a little like this:
A Good Diet = Good Gut Bacteria = Good Health A Bad Diet = Bad Gut Bacteria = Bad Health
And when it comes to good gut bacteria, fibre is their food of choice. But why fibre of all things? It is just so boring. Isn’t it?
Scientists have really only just begun investigating the vastly complex world of gut bacteria so they don’t actually know a lot yet. But when it comes to inflammatory diseases like asthma, one theory is that dietary fibre is digested by the bacteria in our gut to produce short chain fatty acids, which have a natural anti-inflammatory effect on the body (1). We may not know exactly why fibre is good for our gut bacteria but we do know that it’s very important. We also know that we can transform our gut bacteria (and our health) quite profoundly and quite quickly simply by eating more of it.
So what is dietary fibre anyway? Basically it is the edible, indigestible portion of plants - and it isn’t always “fibrous”, by the way. Dietary fibre can be soluble or insoluble. Soluble fibre dissolves in water, forming a gel-like consistency and ferments in the colon into gases while insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve in water and can be either bulking fibre (promoting bowel regularity) or prebiotic fibre, which is also digested through fermentation, in the large intestine. Insoluble fibre tends to increase the movement of food through the system while soluble fibre tends to slow it down (3).
The recommended daily intake of dietary fibre is 25 grams for women and 30 grams for men (3). But even this seemingly low level can be difficult to achieve, particularly if you have a diet high in meat and processed foods (which are usually low in fibre, unless they have been fortified in some way).
I don’t know about you but I generally associate fibre with fruits and veggies (particularly ones that require a lot of chewing), All-Bran and Metamucil. But foods containing fibre are more numerous and far more interesting than you could imagine. I created this little chart to blow your minds. Just check out how much fibre is found in spices, herbs, legumes, pulses, whole-grains, nuts and seeds!
It is important to note that soaking and cooking foods can affect their fibre content, increasing some types of fibre while decreasing others (5). Soluble fibre will dissolve in water while cooking and if you throw that water away, you’re throwing the fibre away with it. So one-pot meals and keeping the thickened, gravy-like water you’ve cooked your legumes and pulses in are the perfect solution to maintaining your fibre content. It is also important to cook your legumes and pulses sufficiently but not to complete and utter mush... and always maintain a little colour and crunch in your veggies.
One of the top six recommendations for increasing your fibre intake on the Harvard Public School of Health’s website is “experimenting with international dishes (such as Indian or Middle Eastern) that use whole grains and legumes as part of the main meal (such as Indian dahls)”(6). This was of interest to me because as an Ayurvedic consultant and cook, Indian dahls are one of my staple meals. Even more interesting is the ways in which the Ayurvedic view of disease aligns with the blossoming field of gut biota research.
Ayurveda views our digestive system as a fire that ‘cooks’ our food. Our digestive fire can be balanced and strong or it can become imbalanced in three ways - too sharp, too dull or too variable. In any of these imbalanced states our food isn’t digested or “cooked” properly which leads to the accumulation of undigested food wastes or toxins.
These toxins are usually eliminated but if digestion remains imbalanced for a period of time, they can accumulate in the intestine and eventually “overflow” into the channels of the body where they obstruct the flow of cellular nutrition and waste disposal. As a result, tissue nutrition and formation can become compromised, as can the nourishment of our immune system. This weakened, toxic environment, combined with imbalanced physiological intelligences, is seen as the root cause of all disease in Ayurveda. Not just the diseases mentioned at the top of this article, but all diseases.
Thus, to promote good health, Ayurveda teaches it is fundamental to promote balanced digestion and a healthy gut environment first and foremost - through the foods we eat, as well as our lifestyle practices.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, the definition of “good diet” is a little more in-depth than simply eating lots of fibre. To promote a balanced digestive fire or a healthy gut environment, meals that are warm, light and slightly oily in quality are recommended. As a starting point the diet is unprocessed, unrefined, preferably organic and seasonal. It is also predominantly vegetarian, predominantly cooked and laden with digestion-promoting herbs and spices. Good quality oils like ghee and coconut oil are used liberally in cooking to help ‘fuel’ a balanced digestive flame and there is a great emphasis on preparing foods in ways that makes them lighter and easier to digest. For example, nuts are always soaked and roasted; heavy grains are dry roasted; and milk is always brought to the boil with spices like cinnamon, cardamon and cloves.
Being predominantly plant-based with a high consumption of legumes, pulses, veggies, whole grains, herbs, spices, fruits, nuts and seeds, the diet is actually very high in fibre. So it turns out, what is good for your “digestive fire” is also good for your gut bugs - because our gut bugs are a part of our internal cooking process.
So my friends, it’s all good news! To improve your health, increasing the fibre in your diet is a simple, doable step. And it doesn’t have to be boring - it can be incredibly delicious! If you have no idea where to start, try dabbling in a little Ayurvedic cooking and you can start with the Adzuki bean recipe below. After all, one cup of cooked Adzuki beans contains five times more fibre than a cup of raw carrots!
1) ‘Catalyst: Gut Reaction Part 1’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w94D45txSxo
2) ‘Catalyst: Gut Reaction Part 2’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfDpM9D_if4
3) John Douillard article: http://www.lifespa.com/whats-missing-healthy-diet-part-i/
5) Effect of soaking and cooking on dietary fibre components of different types of chickpea genotypes http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13197-011-0366-4#page-1
7) Calculated from: http://nutritiondata.self.com/
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue