1 July 2009

Foodwatch with Catherine Saxelby

Spotlight on psyllium

Catherine Saxelby

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.


Anonymous said...

Nature's Path produces an organic cereal called "Smart Bran" w psyllium and oatbran. Contains 13 g of fiber per serving. It actually tastes good - the first bran cereal I actually enjoy eating. I noticed a great improvement in my digestion after I started eating Smart Bran for breakfast...Sue Varga, Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said...

Having long-time elimination problems which resulted in surgery (unsuccessful in the long run because of recurring constipation), I have now found that 2 teaspoons of psyllium a day (I put it in my homemade muslie)has helped enormously.It can also be addded to shakes. Highly recommended.

GI Group said...

Sue, thanks for your recommendation about a tasty cereal with psyllium,. Just remember to drink lots of water or other fluids.

luigi said...

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I would like to share this information with my friends and relatives but they hardly understand English.
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GI Group said...

Hi Luigi, Thanks for the compliment and suggestion. These things come back to budget. We will put it on the wish list as it's a great idea. And if you know of anyone you think would be the right person to translate the website, tell them to get in touch with us. Needs to be someone with a nutrition or dietetics background.

Anonymous said...

I forgot; why would anybody want to lower their cholesterol when it's one of the most important and protective substances in our body? Oh, that's right, because the real truth behind all the studies is never reported to the masses. And grains are animal feed; humans evolved eating the animals.

Anonymous said...

It has come to my knowledge over the years just what a great product psyllium is, however my info is that psyllium overrides the good effects of all other vitamins and even prescription drugs if taken at the same time. I try to allow a 4 hr time gap between psylium and other supplements and drugs. Kerry

GI Group said...

High-fibre products like psyllium, wheat bran and oat bran, do have a question mark hovering over the bio-availability of their nutrients, particularly their minerals and vitamins. In other words, their analysis show a remarkably high content of minerals and vitamins yet – due to the high fibre or silica content – these may not be all that well absorbed into the body. They’re tightly bound into the fibrous structure.

Not a huge amount of research has been done on psyllium but there’s a lot more on wheat bran so I’m taking the liberty of extrapolating from it.

With the minerals such as zinc, for instance, research shows that our bodies don’t take in most of the zinc from unprocessed wheat bran and high-extraction wholemeal flours, despite the fact that there’s lots present. Studies on teenage boys in Iran who consume a diet largely based on unleavened wholemeal bread reveal zinc deficiencies severe enough to result in delays in growth and sexual maturation.

Any high-fibre product that has a laxative effect will do the same. You get the good with the bad. While it’s speeding up transit time through your bowel, it’s also speeding up the time for nutrients to be absorbed. Less contact time, less absorption. It’s good if you’re after regularity or weight loss. It’s bad if you’re trying to maximize your nutrition as absorption is critical.

In the context of the average Western diet, where we consume meat, fish, eggs, dairy, vegetables and yeast-leavened breads, my feeling is that these binding effects are small. But where a diet is marginal or some other factor is in place (eg unleavened bread made without yeast in the Iranian boys), then the mineral-binding ability of brans and fibres comes into play.