Ananya always believed that she was doing everything to keep her 4-year-old son healthy and disease free. But, as she basked in the knowledge that her child was getting the so-called balanced diet, she was often left puzzled by the occasional tummy aches. When she finally met a nutritionist, she found out that she wasn’t adding one of the most important nutritional components in her child’s daily diet, which was fibre. So, when she quizzed the doctor about its importance, following are the points he mentioned.
What is fibre and why is it important?
When we speak of fibre in terms of nutrition, we’re actually talking about dietary fibre, also referred to as DF.
There are two kinds of dietary fibres:
- Soluble fibre that can dissolve in water. It is responsible for softening the stools and making them easier to pass.
- Insoluble fibre that can’t be broken down by the human body. Hence, it passes through the gut, adds bulk to the waste and pushes it out.
Both kinds of fibre are essential for a healthy diet. Soluble fibre acts as a laxative and can reduce cholesterol levels while Insoluble fibre ensures a clean gut, aids weight loss and prevents digestive problems.
Diseases that can be prevented by good fibre intake
Cardiac problems: People who consume adequate fibre have their blood pressure and plasma cholesterol levels under control, which means they have lesser chances of developing cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and stroke.
Diabetes: Since fibre isn’t digested by the body, it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels, making it ideal for adults and children who have diabetes.
Obesity: Fibre delays the absorption of fats and carbohydrates, thus increasing satiety. This helps overweight children lose weight and normal children maintain theirs.
Gastrointestinal disorders: Dietary fibre plays a key role in maintaining gastrointestinal health, preventing the onset of ulcers, GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease), diverticular disease and haemorrhoids.
Cancer: According to various studies, people who eat low-fat, high-fibre diet have a significantly reduced risk of colorectal adenoma, a kind of colon tumour. Studies also suggest that fibre may even carry away excess estrogens thereby reducing the incidence of breast cancer.
Good sources of dietary fibre
A study in the Indian Journal of Applied Research shows that of the top 12 types of food consumed by Indians, six completely lack in dietary fibre. This can be set right by including fibre-rich food in every meal.
Some good sources of soluble fibre:
- Legumes like lentils, peanuts and peas
- Beans such as kidney beans and black beans
- Oatmeal and barley
- Apricots, grapefruit, mangoes and oranges
- Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and turnips
Some good sources of insoluble fibre:
- Whole wheat flour and wheat bran
- Cabbage, lettuce, onion and bell pepper
- Dry fruits like dates and prunes
Interesting ways to introduce fibre in children's diet
Children can start having fibre as soon as they start weaning. Remember to start with very small amounts. The daily recommendation of dietary fibre for children of all ages is as below:
- 5 to 11-year-olds: about 20g
- 11 to 16-year-olds: about 25g
- 16 to 18-year-olds: about 30g
Since children can be picky eaters, they often end up getting less than the required amounts of dietary fibre. However, with a little creativity on the part of parents, regular meals can be customised to include more fibre. Here are some options:
- Bake whole wheat or oat cookies
- Keep cut fresh fruit and vegetable sticks on hand
- Have portion-sized bags of unsalted nuts or seeds
- Make popcorn or steamed sweet corn without adding butter
- Top plain yogurt with fresh fruit
- Instead of watery fruit juice, opt for smoothies with pulp.
- Opt for whole grain to prevent overeating for the rest of the day
- Make porridge using oats and garnish it with fruits and berries
- For breakfast cereal, go for muesli or add dried fruit and nuts instead of plain cereal.
- Make sandwiches using whole grain or multigrain bread
- When making pancakes or waffles, replace plain flour with whole wheat flour
- Make wheat or multigrain chapathi and dal or any vegetable of your choice
- Make salads by cutting fruits and vegetables into fun shapes
- Make sure that the lunch box includes a fruit every day
- When making pasta, opt for the whole grain variety
- Make sambar/dal, loaded with green leafy vegetables
- Flattened rice (poha) has high fibre content; so, use it as a snack topped with peanuts
- Add chopped vegetables to scrambled eggs or paneer
- Substitute refined flour with whole wheat flour
- Have pulses like chickpeas or kidney beans instead of meat
- Try making one pot meals that include rice and vegetables or stuffed bread
- Grate carrots into pasta sauces, sandwich fillings or gravy
- Grate or mash vegetables and cooked beans to make patties or baked fritters
Risks of too much fibre
Sudden increase in fibre intake can cause bloating, stomach cramps and increased flatulence.
Fibre absorbs water; so, lack of sufficient water intake can worsen constipation.
While a high fibre diet is generally recommended for people with irritable bowel syndrome, some people may experience a worsening of this symptom as it becomes tedious for the already strained digestive system to breakdown fibre.
Too much insoluble fibre can make diarrhoea worse.
It is advisable to exercise caution when feeding infants green leafy vegetables, as it can cause loose stools. To ease the digestive system into digesting fibre, it is best to start with the juice of cooked green leafy vegetables.
With a diet rich in whole grains, pulses, fruit and vegetables, we can ensure an adequate intake of dietary fibre. This will not only help with easier bowel movements, but also improve our children's overall health and well-being.
Dr HemaPriya Natesan, a medical practitioner with a degree in Industrial Health, is Founder and Chief Editor at MyLittleMoppet, CEO of Little Moppet Foods and the mother of two little moppets.