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It lowers cholesterol, improves blood sugar levels, reduces blood pressure, promotes weight loss and keeps you regular. And it's something most of us get too little of.

Fibre - the indigestible part of plant foods thought to guard against heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and Type 2 diabetes - has now been shown to offer significant protection from a premature death.

In a report published Monday in the online edition of Archives of Internal Medicine, men and women who consumed the most fibre (29.4 grams a day for men and 25.8 grams for women) were 22 per cent less likely to die of any cause than folks whose diets provided the least (12.6 g for men and 10.8 g for women).

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The study examined fibre intake in relation to risk of death among 388,122 healthy American men and women aged 50 to 71.

After nine years of follow-up, a high fibre diet protected from total death and death from cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases. The risk of dying from cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases was reduced by 24 to 56 per cent in men and 34 to 59 per cent in women with high fibre intakes. Fibre also guarded men from cancer death, but not women.

Fibre from grains was strongly associated with a reduced risk of dying while fibre from vegetables and beans was only weakly linked. Fibre from fruit was not related to mortality risk.

Previous studies have consistently shown fibre to prevent cardiovascular-related deaths presumably by lowering blood cholesterol and blood pressure and improving blood sugar levels and insulin action.

The researchers speculate the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of cereal fibre in whole grains protects against death from infectious and respiratory diseases

Many people don't have any idea how many grams of fibre they consume on a typical day. But for most of us, this number should be doubled.

Women aged 19 to 50 are advised to get 25 g of fibre each day; men require 38 g. As we get older and our calorie intake decreases, we need less fibre. After 50, women should aim for 21 g, men 30 g. The average Canadian consumes between 11 and 17 g of fibre each day.

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It's best to get your fibre from whole foods rather than supplements. Fibre supplements probably don't offer the same benefits as whole grains because they're missing vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.

Use the following to add more fibre to your daily diet. Before you start remember to increase fibre gradually over a period of weeks to give your intestinal tract time to adjust. Increase your fluid intake too because fibre needs to absorb water to work effectively.

Cook whole grains

Whole grains have more fibre than their refined counterparts, which have been stripped of their outer bran layer.

Whole grains include brown rice (1/2 cup cooked = 1.5 g fibre), oatmeal (1/2 cup = 2 g fibre), hulled barley (1/2 cup = 6.4 g fibre), quinoa (1/2 cup = 2 g fibre), bulgur (1/2 cup = 4.1 g fibre), spelt berries (1/2 cup = 6 g fibre) and kamut berries (1/2 cup = 5 g fibre).

Enjoy cooked whole grains on their own or add them to soups and stews. Mix a cooked whole grain into lean ground beef or turkey when making burgers or meatballs. Or toss a chilled cooked grain with a vinaigrette dressing and chopped vegetables for a high-fibre salad.

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Buy 100-per-cent whole grain

Look for "100-per-cent whole grain" on food packages of breads, crackers and cereals. Or check the ingredient list to choose products that list a whole grain as the first ingredient (e.g. whole grain whole wheat, oats, brown rice). If a product is made from more than one grain, ideally all should be whole grain. (Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.)

Choose the right cereal

Read nutrition labels to get more fibre at breakfast. Higher fibre ready-to-eat cereals have at least 4 g a serving. Very high fibre cereals have at least 6 g a serving.

One-hundred-per-cent bran cereals (e.g. General Mills Fibre One, Kellogg's All-Bran Original, Kellogg's All-Bran Bran Buds) aren't technically whole grain, but you can consider them so because they're a concentrated source of bran that's missing from refined grains. Most offer 12 g of fibre a serving.

Mix 1/2 cup of bran cereal with your favourite breakfast cereal. Or add bran cereal to fruit salad and yogurt.

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Sprinkle your fibre

Ground flaxseed, wheat bran and oat bran can be added to hot cereal, smoothies, yogurt, applesauce, muffin and pancake batters, even meatloaf.

For each two tablespoons, ground flaxseed has 4 g of fibre, wheat bran 3.1 g and oat bran 2 g.

Include other fibre-rich foods

While the new study didn't find a strong protective link between legumes, fruits and vegetables and risk of dying, these nutrient- and fibre-rich foods offer numerous health benefits.

Eat beans three times a week. Add lentils to salsa, white kidney beans to pasta sauce, black beans to tacos and chickpeas to whole grain salads.

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Aim for seven to 10 servings a day; one serving is a medium-sized fruit, 1/4 cup dried fruit, 1/2 cup of cooked or raw vegetables or one cup of salad.

Higher fibre fruits and vegetables include apples (with skin), blackberries, blueberries, figs, mangos, pears, prunes and raspberries, snow peas, Swiss chard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggplant and carrots.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.

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