What the F is going on with fibre?
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If you’re old enough to remember nutritional advice from the last millennium (or actually, any time before around 2014), then you might associate fibre with unsexy things like bowel movements, and unappetising words like ’bran’.
But something happened over the past couple of years that has elevated fibre to a hot topic that even my least wellness-inclined friends want to discuss with me. And that thing is an influencer feud. Now, there’s nothing I enjoy more than an influencer feud, and this one is particularly juicy.
In a nutshell: New York-based nutritionist and Instagram star Tanya Zuckerbrot is the founder of the F-Factor Diet, an eating plan revolving around fibre-enriched protein powders and snack bars that her company sells. In 2020, a fashion influencer called Emily Gellis took it upon herself to bring down the F-Factor, regularly going live on Instagram (during the lockdowns, when many people spent all their time on Instagram Lives) to accuse Zuckerbrot of making money by perpetuating diet culture. But the plot thickened when Gellis started being contacted by women claiming that F-Factor products had caused all manner of health issues.
The story is much longer and more convoluted than this and, if you’re interested, you should definitely listen to the podcast series Fed Up, which goes into mega detail for those of us with a voracious appetite for this kind of drama. The whole thing is reaching a fever pitch now that, last month, eight women filed a law suit claiming that F-Factor products caused issues including internal bleeding, gastric distress and intestinal blockages requiring surgery.
People have asked me if they should be taking a fibre supplement and the first thing I say is that I am not a doctor or a nutritional scientist. But I have looked into this and, as I see it, fibre is extremely important but people misunderstand what it is and how to get it. You don’t need to eat endless All-Bran, because the best sources of fibre are plant foods. I’m using the term ‘plant foods’ here, rather than simply ‘veg’, because it includes everything from every type of fruit and vegetables, to nuts, seeds, beans, chickpeas and whole grains.
Sadly, modern diets are lacking in fibre because the food we eat is often so processed as to be unsatisfying and nutritionally bankrupt. I can see why fibre supplements such as the F-Factor would be an effective weight loss tool, as fibre fills you up and can help regulate your blood sugar. Personally, I think the best way to get your fibre is through a wide variety of healthy foods. But is there ever a case for a supplement?
I ask Dr Caitlin Hall, who is chief dietitian and head of clinical research at fibre supplement brand Myota. OK, yes, she has a vested interest, but she knows her science. She explains that, when people think of gut health, they think of probiotics. But actually there are so many different strains of gut bacteria that most commercially available probiotics will be useless unless they contain the specific strain relevant to you. She says it’s more helpful to think about prebiotics, which feed the gut bacteria you already have and are, essentially, fibre.
‘When the good gut microbes break down that fibre, they produce short-chain fatty acids,’ she explains. ‘Most people have never heard of that but it’s at the root of many beneficial effects including improved blood sugar control and reduced inflammation, which supports your immunity.’
But, if everyone’s microbiome is different, then how can any supplement claim to be for everyone? ‘It’s true that my microbes might be more suited to fermenting the fibre from apples, for example, whereas yours might be more suited to fermenting the fibre from oats,’ she says. ‘But if we provide a diversity of those different fibre types, and we know how the average population in general ferment them, then we know that combining these specific fibres in these specific quantities can produce short-chain fatty acids in most people.’
She’s at pains to point out that, while supplement brands like Myota can be a convenient solution to boost your fibre intake in a world of processed foods, she doesn’t want to detract from the message that people should be eating a diversity of fibrous foods in general. You probably know that I’m a big fan of Dr Megan Rossi, who I’ve mentioned on here a lot, and her recipes are all about incorporating as many plants as possible into each meal.
So, if fibre is good, how can the F-Factor be bad? ‘I listened to that podcast too,’ laughs Dr Hall. ‘At the core of her message, we agree. Fibre is good. I think the reason why people were experiencing those issues was because each bar had around 20-30g of fibre, and she was recommending one in the morning and one in the afternoon. If you go from having a low fibre diet, to having in excess of 50g a day, for sure you're going to experience digestive issues. But increasing the fibre in your diet is great, and should have negligible side effects unless you go too hard, too fast.’
Ah, the story of our age. It appears that this is yet another one of those situations where the reality is that an obsession with weight loss is rarely healthy, and moderation is key. I’m going to keep on banging that drum until people listen, or I bore them to death, whichever comes first.
This week I’m…
Stocking up on alcohol-free drinks at Club Soda’s new Tasting Room & Shop, 39 Drury Lane, London, WC2B 5RR
Watching Emma Corrin and Jack O'Connell in a steamy new adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover, in UK cinemas now and on Netflix from 2 December
Finally bought some cacao after watching many serene, willowy women enjoying cacao rituals on Instagram. Reader, it tastes like dirt and twigs. Why does it make them so happy?