Fibre. It’s one of those modern holy words that promises infinite health and conjures mental images of healthy elderly folk, jogging on beaches and enjoying what I can only imagine must be the benefits of their perfectly functioning bowels. Every doctor in Christendom and beyond touts fibre as the intestinal cure-all and the advertising industry has latched on to this, peddling an array of high-fibre “health” foods and supplements. But what if fibre isn’t the answer?
Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, creator of the Gut And Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet, claims fibre is in fact more trouble than it’s worth for some people. Now, before all the critics start stomping their feet, let me clarify this. No-one is saying fibre has been misjudged and is in fact an evil in society, cloaked in the shroud of health food (like, say, supermarket yoghurt). No, what Dr Natasha points out is that fibre is fantabulous is you have healthy gut flora. But if you don’t? Then it’s downright wretched.
The reason fibre is so darned good for the digestive system is not just that it provides roughage, indigestible solids that slough along the intestinal wall, giving you an internal Spring-clean, but also because it provides a feast for intestinal flora. They eat it, bathe in it, sleep in it, frolic in it and generally just adore being smothered in fibre. As a result, the happy bacteria activate the fibre to absorb toxins, boost water and electrolyte metabolism, recycle bile acids and cholesterol and more. So if you had, say, irritable bowel syndrome or gut dysbiosis, you would automatically think fibre would be the solution, right? You wouldn’t be alone. When I first began experiencing symptoms of digestive disorder I visited GP after GP, gastroenterologist and eventually psychiatrist and psychologist. The first thing all of these medically trained practitioners wanted to know was how much fibre did I eat and had I tried a supplement? It came to the point where I was so frustrated by answering the same insultingly obvious questions, that I typed up a chart of my diet, my supplements and what I had already tried. Still, I can’t really be angry with the medical profession for asking about my fibre intake because, as we’ve seen above, it is actually really good for us if our gut is functioning properly. It all goes horribly wrong you see if the gut is not working right.
Should you suffer from a disorder which causes your intestinal flora to be out of kilter, where the bad bacteria have overtaken the good, then fibre will not save you. The problem is, funnily enough, the bad bacteria love fibre too. The pathogenic strains will thrive in the high fibre environment but do not perform the same symbiotic functions. Instead, the fibre is not processed properly and it further inflames and irritates the intestinal wall.
For these reasons, the GAPS Introduction diet dictates weeks of a virtually fibre-free diet in order to kick start the system, starving out the bad guys before repopulating with the good. The problem with this is, no fibre often means no bowel movements and if you’re on GAPS due to symptoms of constipation or abdominal pain caused by distension, this is not going to heal your problems at first but initially make them worse.
To counter the unpleasant sensations that accompany the low-fibre diet, Dr Natasha recommends daily enemas but for many, this just isn’t a real possibility. For those patients who have the courage to attempt what seems like a totally foreign act, they are time consuming, inconvenient, invasive and often painful. Further, enemas, although widely used in Europe and the US, are not considered acceptable in Australia. Enema kits are virtually unheard of and are associated with a stigma of something dirty, juvenile or perverse. Requesting an enema kit in a pharmacy will be met with raised eyebrows and that’s if the staff actually even know what you’re asking for. The only way to acquire a kit is to purchase online and for those who are have internet access, are techno-savvy enough and, let’s face it, are brave enough, this is a slow and expensive purchase. Buying an enema kit from overseas can cost upwards of AUD$100 and the wait time on delivery can be weeks. As such, many Australian GAPS patients struggle through the low fibre Intro Diet with no assistance to get things moving.
I was one of these unlucky patients and as such, I was thrilled when I finished the Intro Diet and was able to add foods like dried fruits and, praise be, beans! Grains provide the majority of fibre in the “ideal” modern Western diet, closely followed by vegetables, then fruit and legumes after that. Once the patient has re-introduced GAPS-legal vegetables and fruits, she can begin to introduce lima beans, haricot beans and lentils. Of course, being the GAPS diet, nothing is ever simple. You can’t just use any old beans, oh no. The list of legal legumes must be properly prepared, involving soaking in water and whey overnight before cooking until soft. Nonetheless, I was thrilled. Having been a vegetarian by choice for many years, legumes form the basis of many of my favourite meals and I had sorely missed them whilst living on meaty meals.
The question is, once all the introductions are over, can a person on the full GAPS Diet actually get enough fibre without supplements? According to the Mayo Clinic, adult humans need between 21 and 38 grams of fibre each day in order to maintain healthy digestive functions[i]. That’s a lot of fibre! Fortunately, as a female, I need much less than the 38g and can settle for a reasonable 21g. So what GAPS-legal foods are fibre rich? I began constructing a list and it turns out it’s not that hard.
I love figs. I am a fig pig. When figs are in season I will gorge on them, finding a way to incorporate them into every meal and snack until they disappear from the farmers’ market again for another 11 months. Dried figs are available all year around and as such not nearly as exciting, but they are nearly as delicious. Just three dried figs for morning tea packs 10g fibre, that’s nearly half the day’s requirement!
Coconut flour is the saviour of the GAPS and paleo diets, allowing almost traditional baked goods to be enjoyed once more. It also just so happens to be extremely high in fibre! A quarter of a cup of coconut flour has 12g of fibre compared to 0.8g for the same quantity of wheat flour. Make yourself some coconut banana bread for brekkie and you’re well on your way to a high fibre diet for the day.
I wouldn’t have thought of avocado as being a naturally high fibre food, being as creamy and soft as it is, but it turns out half an average avo’ contains 5g of dietary fibre. It’s also a fantastic way to get more of those healthy fats in to your diet which are necessary to replace the calories we would normally get from grains. Avocado is a great addition to salads, makes a great snack on its own and pairs beautifully with Mexican dishes. I’m actually eating some chilli con carne with avo’ right now. So tasty!
Look, they’re called the musical fruit for a reason, ok? But don’t worry, when soaked and prepared properly, legumes shouldn’t give you any excess gas or digestive problems. Dr Natasha recommends soaking your legumes overnight in cold water and whey to activate them and to wash away all those nasty lectins (a naturally occurring protein that causes intestinal irritation for many people). Some people swear by soaking beans in water with lemon juice and I personally find I can handle just plain old water. 100g of dried haricot beans will give you 7g fibre and a quarter of a cup of dried lentils provides about 15g of fibre. Legumes are also marvellously versatile, good for breakfast lunch and dinner. Remember that chilli I was eating? Full of beans!
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts are a powerhouse of nutrition. Full of good fats, protein and fibre, it seems impossible to conceive that nature might not have intended us to eat them (except of course if you are allergic, then definitely don’t). 30g of mixed nuts yields 2g fibre so tuck in.
Nut breads and nut butters add extra fibre to the table. A wedge of almond bread for breakfast is a great way to boost your fibre intake. Want more? Try mixing dried figs into the batter before baking and serve with lashings of melting butter for a super-fibrous gourmet breakfast treat.
The only fruit, possibly even food, I love more than figs is raspberries. There’s something about that sweet, tart, spongey little berry that tingles my palate in just the right way. Serendipitously, they also happen to have about 4g of fibre per a lahf-cup and other varieties of berries have comparible fibre levels too.
Pre-GAPS I would scoff down berries with mascarpone, meringue and powdered sugar but they also make a delicious accompaniment to yoghurt or crème fraiche, drizzled with a delicately flavoured honey. You can mix them into your coconut flour banana muffins or enjoy them dried with some nuts just as our ancient ancestors would have done. And really, that’s what this whole GAPS thing is all about, isn’t it?