Had a gutful of salad today?
by Claudine Ryan
For many of us summer salads and fruits seem the epitome of good healthy eating, but you need to eat more than a couple of lettuce leaves to get enough fibre.
If you enjoy good fresh food then summer is a time of plenty, especially if you love the fruit and vegetables that are in abundance right now.
When it comes to delicious, nutritious summer fare it’s hard to go past a salad you can almost feel every cell in your body sing after eating a bowl full of brightly-coloured vegetables.
But if constipation is an issue for you then maybe you should reach for the potato salad or sushi in addition to your more traditional salad favourites.
Why it’s all to do with resistant starch and dietary fibre both of which, the Gut Foundation says in its latest booklet Constipation and Bloating, are important when it comes to maintaining regular and healthy bowel activity.
Resistant starch is starch from cereals, fruits and vegetables that isn’t digested by enzymes in the small intestine but broken down by bacteria in the large intestine instead. Dietary fibre is the remains of plant foods that like resistant starch passes undigested through the small intestine and is mostly broken down by bacteria in the colon.
How we cook starch determines which part of the digestive system breaks it down. This brings us to potato salad and sushi if you cook starchy food like a potato and eat it hot, it’s digested in the small intestine, but if you allow the potato to cool and then eat it, the starch ends up in the large bowel as resistant starch. Rice cooked by the Asian absorption-method commonly used in sushi and many Asian restaurants also contains more resistant starch.
While both resistant starch and dietary fibre ferment in the bowel, resistant starch can produce more volatile fatty acids than dietary fibre. These fatty acids can protect against colon cancer. Both dietary fibre and resistant starch contribute to faecal bulk, which has a significant role in normal bowel movements.
Are you getting enough fibre?
We all need at least 30 grams of dietary fibre each day, recommends the Gut Foundation. So while the healthy salad your slim workmate just had for lunch the one with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and celery does contain significant amounts of vitamins and minerals, it’s not the perfect meal after all.
Unless we eat wholegrains we’re not getting enough dietary fibre. And in bad news for all those on the Atkins and South Beach diets: high fibre bread isn’t fattening, it’s just what you put on it that can be, says the Gut Foundation’s president Professor Terry Bolin.
But veggie-lovers don’t despair; some of your favourites such as asparagus, broccoli, potatoes, corn and spinach all contain amounts of dietary fibre similar to brown rice.
Other sources of dietary fibre include: muesli, bran, wholemeal pasta, legumes, dried fruits, nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds). But you’ll need to cut out the white bread, cornflakes and biscuits it’s better to reach for wholegrain options.
A healthy embarrassment
For those plagued by another sensitive issue, digestively speaking, Bolin offers comfort. If you’re passing wind then chances are your diet is pretty good, he says. Foods well known for producing gas such as legumes, broccoli, cabbage and pears also contain significant levels of dietary fibre.
One way of preventing flatulence is to make dietary changes slowly, Bolin says it gives your body a better chance of adapting to the new amount of fibre in your diet and perhaps lessen the amount of gas your gut produces.
However, if you’re eating a diet high in dietary fibre and feeling very uncomfortable, full of gas and bloated then Bolin says it’s not unreasonable to cut back a bit on dietary fibre and consider using laxatives.
The new guidelines have debunked some common myths about the use of laxatives. For example there’s no evidence to indicate that laxatives will damage the bowel, they’re not addictive and they’re safe to use under medical supervision, he says.
The guidelines also address other commonly believed misconceptions about constipation. For example, clinical studies have found no evidence that moderate exercise helps people suffering mild constipation and other experiments have found drinking more water than normal doesn’t overcome constipation.
Now’s the time to enjoy the bounties of summer, so next time you tuck into a bowl of fruit salad for breakfast why not add some muesli? And when you pack that salad for lunch put it between two slices of wholegrain bread, your gut will be glad you did.
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