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Benefits of Prebiotics,Carbohydrates & Fibre to our Health

Updated on May 28, 2013
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An experienced integrative healthcare professional & Member of the International Alliance of Holistic Therapists

According to several epidemiological studies, chronic disease inversely correlated with the consumption of whole natural plant foods and fibre plays a major part in promoting health. Carbohydrates can reach up to 90 to 95% of total caloric content in plant foods. In the United States where carbohydrates comprise for only 45% of caloric intake, they have been labelled by some as unhealthy components in a diet. This however does not take into account the types of carbohydrate due to the lack of familiarity of the different healthy and unhealthy types of carbohydrates. Dependant upon the type of carbohydrate consumed in a carbohydrate-rich meal will reflect upon the way it is digested and also their physiological effects in our body.

The public health guidelines for carbohydrate consumption provided by the U.S Department of Agriculture and the American Diabetes Association do not distinguish between the different types of carbohydrates. These fail to recognize the diversity and complexity of the carbohydrate group of foods [1]. Furthermore there have been inconsistent recommendations such as the Pritkin-type diets that suggest a high carbohydrate intake of up to 75 to 80% of total calories indicating that a high carbohydrate intake is recommended to prevent and treat conditions such as cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disease and diabetes. Other health advisors on the other hand support a low-carbohydrate intake as this takes advantage of the dehydration effects of ketosis.

In fact, we need to address and consider the complexities of carbohydrates and their greater roles in affecting metabolic processes and its use in functional medicine. Carbohydrates are not just an energy source as they are important links to health and disease. For example, carbohydrates can function as fibre that resist digestion and also act as pre-biotics to influence blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates are also responsible for the promotion and production of friendly intestinal micro-flora (beneficial bacteria) which are then able to ferment starch accumulated in the lower intestine [1]. In diabetes, the modification of the types of carbohydrates consumed (i.e. consuming low-glycaemic index carbohydrates), will affect the control of blood sugar levels thus reducing or removing the need for insulin injections.

Nutritional Benefit of Prebiotics such as Inulin, Fructoologosaccharides amd Galactooligosaccharides

Inulin and Fructooligosaccharides are prebiotics which are defined as carbohydrates that selectively support the growth and activity of the bacteria types that are important to health; bifidobacteria and/or lactobacilli genera. Galactooligosaccharides like Fructooligosaccharides, are non-digestible oligosaccharides and can both act as colonic food [1]. Galactooligosaccharides may probably act as a prebiotic as well.

Prebiotics combined with a balance of soluble and insoluble dietary fibres, provide the substrate for microflora to produce the beneficial SCFAs (short chain fatty acids).


  • A polysaccharide made of repeating fructose units with a terminal glucose unit
  • A Prebiotic
  • A member of the fructan family of storage carbohydrates that occur in most flowering plants especially chicory, onions, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes
  • Symbiotic micro-organisms in the large intestine rely on undigested carbohydrates (e.g. soluble fibres and resistant starch) as fuel to support health by producing short-chain fatty acids (e.g. propionate, acetate and butyrate supply up to 70% of energy used by colonic epithelial cells) from the fermentation of these carbohydrates
  • Food sources include: Wheat, Onion, Murnong, Leek, Asparagus, Chicory root, Yacon, Salsify, Jerusalem artichoke, Dahlia tuber and Garlic


  • Are oligosaccharides resulting from inulin breakdown
  • Oligosaccharides containing between 2 and 10 molecules of monosaccharide fructose with a terminal glucose unit
  • Are the preferential substrate for most bifidobacteria and are ineffective as a substrate for the potentially pathogenic bacterium Clostridium perfringens
  • Supplementation with these nutrients in doses of 1-8g per day will favourably affect human microflora balance
  • Food sources: onion, edible burdock, rye, asparagus, Chinese chive, Jerusalem artichoke, Gramineae plants, banana, sugar maple, oat

Beneficial effects of Bificobacteria:

-Reduce blood ammonia levels

-Lower blood cholesterol levels

-Inhibit growth of potential pathogens (e.g. by producing acetate and lactate)

-Restore normal intestinal flora during antibiotic therapy

-Produce vitamins (e.g. B group, folic acid)

Soluble fibers:

  • Form colloidal suspensions in water
  • Pass through the intestinal tract more slowly than insoluble fibres
  • Include soluble gums (includes beta-glucans), some hemicelluloses, soluble pectins and other soluble polysaccharides that are not susceptible to enzymatic degradation
  • Has certain therapeutic effects; decrease cholesterol absorption, moderate or delay glucose absorption in small intestine, delay gastric emptying and increase satiety value of a meal
  • Physiological responses:

Lower GI Tract:

  • Adds some bulk and ‘softness’ to the stools due to its property of water absorption and normalizes intraluminal stool transit and elimination
  • Significant increase in bacterial growth-biomass nut no effect on attachment sites for biomass
  • Significant increase in Gases CO2, H2 and CH4 (methane)
  • Significant decrease in Colon pH
  • Change in fecal anaerobic bacteria
  • Colon and fecal;

-Increase SCFAs, Acetate, Propionate, Butyrate

-Decrease ammonia

  • Epithelial cell physiology and biology;

-Increase DNA repair

-Reduction in Gene expression and Proliferation

-Unknown effect on Apoptosis

  • Weak laxative effects
  • Weak effects on fecal bulk; water holding capacity
  • Positive Bile-acid changes in colon
  • No change in Intestinal Transit time

Upper GI Tract:

  • Decrease Digestive enzyme activity
  • Delayed rate of mineral and vitamin absorption
  • No effect on amount of vitamin and mineral absorption
  • Decrease Blood Cholesterol, Glucose, Insulin
  • Decrease Sterol absorption
  • No effect on lumen particle size
  • Variable effect on lumen viscosity

Prebiotics; Physiological response:

At least 50 general of different bacteria exist in the human colon [1]. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that selectively support the growth and activity of the bacteria types that are important to health; bifidobacteria and/or lactobacilli genera. Colonic symbiotic microorganisms/bacteria use undigested carbohydrates such as soluble fibres and resistant starch (the prebiotics) as fuel to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like propionate, acetate and butyrate to support health. This selective support if bifidobacteria and lactobacilli can cause them to compete and outgrow other harmful bacteria, thus act as a targeted natural approach to antibiotic therapy.

Importance of Dietary fibre, its evaluation as a nutritional material and the physiology of soluble and insoluble fibres.

Fibre intake has shown to be cardioprotective, glucose regulating and cancer protective.

Insoluble fibres (physiology)

  • Do not form colloidal suspensions in water
  • Are typically referred to as ‘bulking agents’ and they usually help with intestinal flow
  • Include celluloses, some hemicelluloses (pentosans) and incoluble pectins
  • Adds weight, volume (fecal bulk) and ‘softness to stools hence enhance intraluminal transport (decrease transit time) and promotes regular elimination
  • Examples: Celluloses, Lignones, Some hemicelluloses. Cereal fibers

Soluble fibres (physiology)

  • Form colloidal suspensions in water (forms a smooth gel or thickened network)
  • These fibres typically pass through the intestinal tract more slowly than the insoluble fibres
  • Include soluble gums (includes the beta-glucans), some hemicelluloses, soluble pectins,and other soluble polysaccharides not susceptible to enzymatic degradation
  • Adds some bulk and [softness’ to stools and facilitate intraluminal stool transit and elimination
  • However, its role is more associated with therapeutic effects like decreasing cholesterol absorption, moderate and delay glucose absorption in small intestine
  • Can also delay gastric emptying and increase satiety value of a meal
  • Examples: Pectins, Gums, Mucilages, Alginates, Carrageenans, some hemicelluloses
  • Fruits, Vegetables and nuts contain a higher proportion of soluble fibre


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