Psyllium (pronounced sill-ee-um), which looks like fine flakes of wheat bran and consists of the outer husks of Plantago psyllium or Psyllium ovata seeds, is an important source of soluble fibre. In fact, it contains 5–6 times more soluble fibre than oat bran. It’s also rich in mucilages which take up water, swell and expand in size to form a gelatinous mass.
We need about 15 g (1/2 oz) of soluble fibre a day – around half of our total fibre intake – although there is no official figure. Here’s what soluble fibre can do for you:
- It helps to lower cholesterol by binding to the ‘bad’ cholesterol and swishing it out of the body via the bowel. To make up for the drop in cholesterol, the liver draws more from our bloodstream so blood cholesterol falls.
- It also bulks up the stool volume and softness, so it’s easy to pass.
- It forms a gel in the intestines, which slows stomach emptying, delaying the absorption of glucose from your blood stream.
Psyllium sounds like an obvious solution to get the soluble fibre we need. However, it’s not very tasty – in fact it looks and tastes pretty much like chaff. You also need to consume a serious quantity to lower your cholesterol and this can be difficult to achieve day in, day out. The easiest way I’ve found to include enough psyllium in the diet is to stir it through your usual cereal or mix 2 teaspoons of it in milk or juice and drink it down once a day. Or you can stir it into fruit yoghurt and spoon it down. Make sure you eat it straight away as it gets gluggy. You can also use it in place of a quarter of the flour when you bake muffins and cakes. Being gluten-free, it helps add fibre into the diets of coeliacs.
There are a couple of commercial products made with psyllium that are an easier way to get the soluble fibre you need.
Kellogg’s Guardian cereal is made from whole wheat and whole barley with 12% psyllium and tastes quite pleasant for breakfast – a little like corn flakes but more golden and less crunchy (also less salty). One bowl or 2/3 cup (30 g/1 oz) gives you around 6 g fibre including 3 g soluble fibre, which is quite amazing from one single food. As a yardstick, 30 g All-Bran supplies 9 g fibre but less than 1 g soluble fibre. You’ll need to consume around two-thirds of a cup of Guardian each day, although this depends on how much fruit, dried fruit, legumes or grain breads you eat (all contributors to soluble fibre). It has a very low GI (37) so makes an excellent breakfast cereal for those with diabetes.
Psyllium is the basis of several laxatives including Metamucil and Fybogel. You simply mix the powder into a glass of water or juice twice a day.
When you start using psyllium, start gradually, as it has a powerful laxative effect. Some people report a lot of flatulence (wind) when they start using it, so be warned. This settles down after a week but it’s something to be aware of. Drink plenty of water as well.
What’s the bottom line? Psyllium doesn’t have the rich nutrient content of other time-honoured supplements like wheatgerm (packed with B vitamins) or lecithin (B vitamins and choline) or flaxseed (high in omega-3s and phyto-oestrogens). But as a cholesterol-lowerer, it’s superior to oat bran. As a regularity aid, it wins over wheat bran. I like to think of it as a ‘super supplement’ – and definitely a worthy addition in the arsenal of dietary weapons to control your blood glucose levels.
Catherine Saxelby is an accredited dietitian and nutritionist and runs the Foodwatch Nutrition Centre. Her latest publication is The Shopper’s Guide to Light Foods for Weight Loss (available as a PDF). For more information or to order a copy, visit www.foodwatch.com.au.