Are Fibre Supplements as Good as Getting the Real Thing?

As part of a complementary wellness regime, many people turn to supplements to help give their wellbeing a bit of a boost. The logic goes that if you don’t get enough of a certain nutrient, such as fibre, in your diet, you can easily add it in by sprinkling a bit of powdered fibre supplement into your soup, sauce, dip or yogurt. But is adding fibre through supplements really as beneficial to your wellness as getting it through food?


Joanne Lupton, a spokesperson for the American Society of Nutrition and professor of nutrition at Texas A&M University, notes, ‘The real issue here is that eating a high-fibre diet from foods is almost, by definition, an excellent diet. It’s hard to reach dietary fibre recommendations without eating a lot of fibre . . . so once you take it out of the food, you probably won’t have a very good diet.’ According to the American Dietetic Association, you should be eating between 21 and 38 grams of fibre every day, albeit depending in your gender and age. Still, most of us in this country are only getting half that amount.


There are two types of fibre or roughage: soluble fibre, which dissolves in water and helps carry food though your digestive tract, and insoluble fibre, which doesn’t dissolve in water and rapidly passes through your digestive system largely intact. The National Fibre Council recommends that you eat fruits, vegetables, beans, oats and whole grain breads and cereals for good sources of both types of fibre. But where do supplements – such as psyllium, methylcellulose, wheat dextrim and inulin — come into the equation?


While tasteless and odourless fibre powders have been marketed in a way to encourage you to add them to an endless list of soft foods and batters and change only the texture, the low ratio of fibre to size means that there’s no way you could get the fibre you need just by adding it in supplement form. There are only roughly three grams of fibre per tablespoon of supplement and so Lona Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, asserts, ‘You would be sprinkling it on everything all day long. Just adding fibre to a food doesn’t necessarily make it a health food. I’m sure there are people out there who try to justify it.’


However, both Lupton and Sandon do allow that fibre supplements offer some of the same health benefits as food-based fibre. Powdered fibre can regulate your bowel movements, help to lower your cholesterol and maintain your blood-sugar at a stable level – just like the real thing. Where fibre supplementation falls short is in providing you with the vitamins and minerals that come from fibre in whole foods. Moreover, fibre supplements may also come with unpleasant side effects. Sandon comments, ‘Some of them cause more GI [gastrointestinal] rumblings than maybe people would care to have.’


The University of Maryland Medical Centre advises people taking certain medications — including tricyclic antidepressants, diabetes drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs, lithium, digoxin or the seizure drug carbamazepine — to talk to a medical health professional before using fibre supplements. Lupton clarifies, ‘People can take them without problems, but just because a little is good, a lot is not necessarily better. If someone is taking daily medications, maybe they should take that at different times than the supplements.’ She adds that, if you’re struggling with your weight, you should not use fibre supplements as a way to excuse eating foods that are not high in nutrients.

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