The low-down on what low-fibre diets are doing to our gut

By Kate Hassett

The low-down on what low-fibre diets are doing to our gut
Can low-fibre diets do serious damage to our gut health?

Fibre has long been linked to better health and has been seen as a must for continued wellbeing, but new studies show that fibre may play a greater role in our gut health than previously thought.

Various studies have concluded that when microbes are starved of fibre, they can begin to feed on the protective mucus lining the gut, an unwanted side-effect that is thought to lead to inflammation and disease.

Such is the power of fibre that by limiting your consumption you could be doing serious harm to your body, both in the short and long term.

“Diet is one of the most powerful tools we have for changing the microbiota,” Justin Sonnenburg, a biologist at Stanford University, said earlier this month at a Keystone Symposia conference on the gut microbiome. “Dietary fiber and diversity of the microbiota complement each other for better health outcomes.”

The microbes that survive and feast on fermentable fibres from various foods assist the process whereby microbes are able to extract the energy, nutrients and other compounds that would otherwise be indigestible.

Sonnenburg also noted in her presentation that the western diet provides an insufficient and frankly, poor, amount of fibre. She added that our predecessors would have been likely to consume close to 10 times the amount of fibre as the regular person today.

“Imagine the effect that has on our microbiota over the course of our evolution,” he said.

In a recent study conducted by the University of Michigan Medical School, a group of mice were fed a high-fibre diet and had their gut lining analysed. An opposing group were fed a diet free from fibre and subsequently showed a significant decrease in the protective lining of their gut.

A third group of mice were given a partially fibre-fuelled diet consisting of on and off days. What the study revealed, was that simply incorporating a small amount of fibre on off days wasn’t enough to protect the lining of the gut, nor maintain healthy gut bacteria.

If we can extend these results to humans it “tells us that even eating your whole fiber foods every other day is still not enough to protect you. You need to eat a high-fiber diet every day to keep a healthy gut,” according to Kelly Swanson, professor of comparative nutrition at the University of Illinois.

“Studies like this are great because it’s getting at the mechanisms to explain why fiber is beneficial,” Swanson says.

New studies continue to demonstrate how important diet is to our overall health and how making changes to your diet can assist in reversing damage. However, more studies are looking into how chronic or continued low-fibre diets can impact our overall health over a lifetime, or across generations.

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