Dr Denis Burkitt proposed that dietary fibre intake was proportionally linked to the development of chronic diseases. He’d observed that the prevalence of chronic diseases in Third World developing countries was extremely low compared to Western developed countries. He believed the low prevalence of chronic disease in these countries was largely due to their naturally whole food plant-based diet (mostly whole starches) which was low in animal foods and fat, and mostly devoid of junk food.
I’ve studied fibre and its effects on health for decades and I thought I understood its role i.e. its importance in bowel regularity, satiety, and in helping to reduce cholesterol. Until more recently this is where I’d left it, I’d taken it for granted that on my largely whole food plant-based diet (although still including some dairy and fish at the time) that fibre wasn’t an issue for me. However, last year I was prompted to look into it more closely after reading a number of studies on the subject.
I’ve since come to realise just how much more important dietary fibre is in terms of health and specifically our immune systems. As Dr Burkitt realised, the measurement of dietary fibre is a great indicator of a person’s (or population’s) health particularly in relation to chronic disease risk and prevalence. This is primarily because it reflects the consumption of (mostly) whole plant foods and not just because of the fibre per se.
Over the last few decades fibre (particularly wheat bran) has been touted as a healthy food additive and has been artificially incorporated into hundreds of extremely unhealthy junk foods such as cereals and snack bars and use as an isolated supplement. This type of added fibre is not nutritionally beneficial and offers little or no health benefits compared to whole food fibre, it may even be detrimental since it can bind to certain minerals and prevent absorption (@3.59min).
For rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic diseases, preventing and reducing inflammation in the body is crucial and consuming dietary fibre from whole plant foods is extremely beneficial for this purpose. Whole plant food fibre directly reduces inflammation, acts as a prebiotic for beneficial bacteria within our guts, promotes the dominance of these beneficial bacteria, helps with the transit of waste material through our colon, and assists with the safe recycling of water and other nutrients from our stools.
There are two main groups of fibre; soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre breaks down in water and passes through the small intestine into the large intestine (colon) where it feeds our good bacteria – more on this in a second… Insoluble fibre provides the flexible bulk that allows peristalsis to move the food you eat through the entire length of your intestines and ensures that waste material is removed efficiently. Insoluble fibre also helps to fill you up when eating so you feel more satisfied and eat less calories than you would otherwise, eating animal products or junk food. This helps you to maintain a healthy weight.
Soluble fibre is extremely important for so many reasons but providing food for our friendly gut bacteria may be the most important. We feed our beneficial gut bacteria with soluble fibre and resistant starch and in turn they provide us with most of our immune system, produce some B vitamins, make short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate, help with the production of certain hormones, provide important feedback to the brain helping to manage appetite etc., prevent pathogenic bacteria from consuming our gut mucosal lining (critically important) and much more.
We are fibre consuming creatures, we are setup to thrive on a high fibre whole food plant-based diet. For millions of years we ate food not only to feed ourselves but to support our colonies of beneficial gut bacteria. Our food was slowly absorbed throughout the length of our gut leaving plenty of soluble fibre and resistant starch left over to feed our friendly bacteria lower down in our large intestine. This protected our gut lining, created a strong immune system, and provided effective nutrient absorption and waste removal.
In more recent times our fibre intake has decreased dramatically and our consumption of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates has increased correspondingly. In parallel with this our consumption of animal products, saturated fat and refined oils has also dramatically increased over roughly the same period; particularly over the last forty years or so.
Nowadays, with our standard UK (SUK) diet and the standard American diet (SAD) we eat large amounts of rapidly accessible sugars and very low amounts of fibre, this means most of our calories and ‘nutrients’ are absorbed early on in the digestive process which means there is little or no resistant starch or fibre to feed good bacteria in the colon. At the same time, our consumption of animal products (including dairy) promotes the growth and development of pathogenic species within our colon. This leads to dysbiosis and the development and facilitation of many of our chronic diseases including rheumatoid arthritis. Diseases which are still rare in developing countries eating largely traditional plant-based diets.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I set myself up for developing rheumatoid arthritis when I was a child. I ate a high sugar low fibre diet will a lot of dairy products and eggs throughout my childhood and my teens. This continued into my early 20s when I began to develop symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Also throughout this period I succumbed to lots of ear infections, throat infections, and bronchial infections for all of which I was given lots and lots of antibiotics. It’s no wonder then that I created an environment where I would become susceptible to the development of chronic diseases, in my case arthritis. The antibiotics destroyed my friendly gut bacteria, the lack of fibre destroyed my gut’s mucosal lining and the dairy, eggs, saturated fat, refined oils and junk food coupled with the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria created a leaky gut. This combined with poor nutrition and a stressful lifestyle left me little chance of reaching my 30s without a chronic disease.
So we need to increase our intake of soluble and insoluble fibre as well as resistant starch by consuming more whole plant foods. This will feed our friendly gut bacteria and they in turn will maintain our gut’s mucosal layer and prevent pathogenic bacteria and other toxins from damaging our gut lining. If our friendly gut bacteria are happy then we are happy, literally; since our gut bacteria have a huge influence on our mental health (I’ll write a full post on this subject later).
More fibre and more resistant starch will decrease inflammation, help to repair leaky gut, balance the immune system, increase nutrient absorption, efficiently remove waste and prevent the reabsorption of toxins, reduce the negative effects of certain hormones, slow the absorption of sugar reducing insulin spikes, remove cholesterol and improve circulation, and maintain our gut’s mucosal lining. All of these benefits will help to reduce rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and assist with the repair of our immune systems. This will also be beneficial in the treatment of other chronic diseases and critical in their prevention.
The RDA for fibre in developed countries including the UK and US is between approximately 25 g to 35 g, in my opinion based on everything I’ve studied in the last eighteen months, this amount would never support a healthy gut or a healthy immune system. Personally I’m currently eating around 60 to 70 g per day and I am aiming for over 100 g plus a good amount of resistant starch. I believe this will significantly help to reverse my rheumatoid arthritis.
The best sources of fibre that I’ve found personally are; buckwheat, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocados, cruciferous vegetables, berries, grapefruit and flaxseeds. I eat lots of other fibre containing whole plant foods too but the previous list forms the base of my diet. Many of these are also good sources of resistant starch.
Legumes are generally thought to be the best sources of fibre followed by whole grains (oats for example), so these would make an excellent base provided you don’t have any sensitivities or intolerances to these groups. Beyond these, eat lots of cruciferous vegetables and root vegetables. Some plant foods produce more resistant starch when they’re allowed to cool after cooking for example white potatoes. These can be cooked then allowed to cool, and then made into a potato salad :-)
Legumes image is public domain