Boosting your daily fibre intake can help guard against constipation, high cholesterol, weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, and possibly colon cancer.
Now, new study findings show that getting more roughage can also lower a woman's risk of breast cancer. And the more fibre consumed, the lower the risk.
The report, published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pooled the results of 10 studies involving more than 700,000 women. Over all, women who consumed the most versus the least fibre were significantly less likely to develop breast cancer.
What's more, every 10-gram increase in daily fibre - the amount in slightly less than a 1/2 cup of bran cereal - was associated with a 7-per-cent reduction in risk.
Fibre may protect from breast cancer by binding to estrogen in the digestive tract. The liver filters estrogen from the blood into the gut, where fibre can remove it from the body. (Being exposed to estrogen over a long time is thought to increase breast-cancer risk.) A high-fibre diet also helps control blood sugar, insulin and insulin-like growth factors, all of which have been linked to a greater risk of breast cancer. Insulin may impact breast cells directly or increase the growth of cancerous cells.
It's estimated that the average Canadian consumes between 11 and 17 grams of fibre each day - half the amount that's recommended to reap health benefits.
Women aged 19 to 50 are advised to get 25 grams of fibre each day; men require 38 grams. As we get older and our calorie intake decreases, we need less fibre. After 50, women should aim for 21 grams, men 30 grams.
Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts contain two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre dissolves in water. Dried peas, beans, lentils, oats, barley, psyllium husks, apples and citrus fruits are good sources of soluble fibre, which helps to lower blood cholesterol and prevent large rises in blood sugar.
Wheat bran, whole grains, nuts and vegetables contain mainly insoluble fibre. It's this type of fibre that's especially effective at promoting regularity.
Get your fibre from foods rather than supplements, since fibre-rich foods also provide vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, compounds that also protect your health.
Practice the following tips to help you add more fibre to your daily diet. (Increase your fibre intake gradually over a period of weeks to prevent digestive distress. And remember to drink more water as fibre needs to absorb it to work effectively.)
Add 100 per cent bran cereal
Replace ½ cup of your usual ready-to-eat-cereal with ½ cup of 100 per cent bran cereal (12 grams of fibre). Add ¼ cup of bran cereal to a blender smoothie (6 grams). Use bran cereal instead of granola when making yogurt and fruit parfaits.
Replace white with whole grain
Choose 100 per cent whole grain bread with at least 2 grams of fibre per slice. Look for whole grain cereal with at least 5 grams of fibre per serving. Serve whole grain side dishes at dinner such as brown rice (3.5 grams per 1 cup), bulgur (8.2 grams), buckwheat (3 grams), millet (2.3 grams), and quinoa (5.2 grams).
Sweeten with fruit
Enjoy one cup of raspberries or blackberries for dessert (8 grams). Eat a pear as a mid-afternoon snack (5 grams). Satisfy your sweet tooth with three dates instead of candy or chocolate (5 grams). Other fibre-rich fruits include apples with the skin, dried apricots, blueberries, figs, kiwis, mangoes and prunes.
Bulk up with vegetables
Serve one cup of mashed sweet potato (8 grams) as a change from white rice. Top a homemade pizza with 1 cup of steamed broccoli florets (4 grams). Instead of noodles, try 2 cups of spaghetti squash with 2 cups of pasta sauce (the squash provides 4.3 grams, and only 84 calories).
Other veggies with at least 5 grams of fibre per ½-cup serving include green peas, snow peas, Swiss chard and a baked potato with the skin.
You'll get 2 to 4 grams of fibre in a ½-cup serving of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, eggplant, green beans, parsnips and mixed (frozen) vegetables.
Pass the beans
Toss ½ cup of chickpeas into a green salad (3 grams). Top pasta with ½ cup of lentils (4.5 grams) and tomato sauce instead of meat sauce. Add ½ cup of black beans to tacos and burritos (6.5 grams). Throw ½ cup of soybeans (5.1 grams) into your next bowl of soup.
For convenience, buy canned beans (they are already cooked). Before adding to a dish, drain them in a colander and rinse under cool running water to remove excess sodium and some of the gas-producing carbohydrates.
Give foods a boost
Add ground flaxseed to cookie, muffin and pancake batters; add 2 tablespoons to a breakfast smoothie (4.5. grams). Mix 2 tablespoons of chia seeds (4 grams), raw wheat bran (3 grams) or raw oat bran (2 grams) into a bowl of hot cereal or yogurt.
Instead of potato chips, munch on 4 cups of air-popped popcorn (5 grams) or 1 cup of edamame (8 grams). Crunch 10 baby carrots (4 grams) instead of a handful of crackers. Choose whole grain granola and cereal bars with at least 2 grams of fibre per bar (and no more than 8 grams sugar).
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.