Understanding dietary fibre: Ancient to recent times

Some ancient literatures do tell us how our ancestors used to include dietary fibre in their menu. Study of some historical evidence can shed light on it to help us understand more about dietary fibre and its health benefits

Dietary fibre (DF) consists of non-digestible carbohydrates and lignin that are intrinsic and intact in plants. It is found in legumes, whole grains, vegetables and fruits and varies in amount. DF is soluble and insoluble in water.

Soluble fibre is jellylike and gets fermented in the colon into gases whereas insoluble fibre is metabolically inert and provides bulking which absorbs water, helping the stool pass more quickly and easily through the intestine. So, it is often considered the boon for those with constipation issues.

DF has the property of reducing the amount of low-density lipoprotein – or bad cholesterol – in our bloodstream by its ability of reabsorbing bile in the intestine, making it less likely to re-enter the body.

It slows the rate of sugar absorption into the bloodstream keeping the level of blood glucose from rising too fast, subsequently lowering the risk of heart diseases and diabetes.

Similarly, it helps us maintain our body weight. It not only softens the stool in the intestine but also facilitates its movement, making it smooth and easy.

The detailed effect of DF on human health was identified in recent years only. Attempts have been made to explore its effect on adults, but how it works on children is still to be explored effectively.

But some ancient literature do tell us how our ancestors used to include DF through their eating habits. Study of some historical evidence can shed light on it to help us understand more.

Historical analysis depicts that consumptive patterns differ with the differentiation of locality. If the available resources are rich in DF, people of the surroundings would have more DF intake.

In addition to resources, instructions mentioned in religious scriptures also have a dominant role in the determination of food consumption.

Vedic literature, in this regard, is one of the reliable and valid sources of information. In “Geeta”, while preaching Warrior Arjuna, Lord Krishna explains and categorises food in terms of Satwik, Rajashi, and Tamashi.

Satwik food comprises a variety of plant products (legumes, grains, vegetables and fruits) and milk, ghee and yoghurt. There is a complete absence of meat in Satwik food. It implies that people consuming Satwik food seem to have been taking more DF. However, people consuming Rajashi and Tamashi food have access to plant and animal products directly.

There is no restriction on the consumption of meat. The portion of DF in meat is sharply negligible. So, we can derive that the presence of DF who follow Rajashi and Tamashi way of life have less amount of DF in comparison to Satwik way of life.

Slaughtering of animals for the sake of flesh is not allowed in Buddhism. It motivates people towards the consumption of plant products. Livelihood practices entirely dependent on plant products enhance the amount of DF in the human body. Moreover, consumption of meat is not prohibited in Buddhist philosophy. The practice of consuming meat either replaces the plant products or reduces its amount. The existence of such a situation shows a decreased quantity of DF in the human body.

The Quran prescribes a menu of a balanced diet, which contains most if not all the useful ingredients required for the growth, strengthening and repairing of the human body.

The most balanced diet consists of meat, fish, fresh milk, cheese and fruits. The flesh of cattle and fowls has been specifically emphasised in the Quran for consumption. Such emphasis on meat either substitutes or minimises the quantity of plant-derived products, resulting in a reduced intake of DF.

Dietary laws mentioned in the Bible restricts eating of pork, shrimps, shellfish and many other types of sea food, most insects, scavenger birds and various other animals. This rule was adopted to make the Israelis distinct from others. Later, it stated not to call anything impure that God has made.

People, however, have right to eat whatever we want as long it does not come in way of their faith and beliefs.

In a scientific study, the phrase “Dietary fibre” first appeared in an article entitled “Pregnancy Toxaemia” by Eben Hipsley in 1953. Today’s health science recommends adults to have 25-30 grams of DF per day. Likewise, children of 6-11 years should have the intake of 13 grams of DF every day. For the children of aged 3-5, the average intake of DF is 11 grams a day.

Fibre-containing foods share unique characteristics with nutritional and metabolic implications for the weaning infant.

Whole cereals, green vegetables and legumes should be routinely introduced during the weaning process to achieve a better nutritional balance and accustom children to diets with fibre content.

Almost all children living in urban areas of Nepal consume junk food on a regular basis, influenced by the taste or advertisement. Processed junk foods are very low in dietary fibre and cannot keep the normal bowel function. It has already been proven that fibre consumption protects heart diseases, improves gastrointestinal health, balance diabetes and maintain the body weight.

Ghimire is a researcher on Biomedical Sciences at Sunway University