The Importance of Dietary Fiber

Do you know any good dietary fiber jokes?  How about the one where a woman in a restaurant has apparently inquired which entrée would be higher in fiber, and the snooty waiter answers, “If you want more fiber miss, you may eat the menu….”  All joking aside, is there anything to all the “high in fiber” health claims on food packages, or is it just more advertising hype clothed in pseudoscientific claims?  


First, be suspicious of high fiber health claims on boxes or packaged or prepared foods.  While the claim may be technically true, it may also be a distraction from other health problems with the item in question, such as high sugar or salt content.  Also, to make an otherwise unhealthy product qualify for a health claim, some manufacturers are using “fiber additives” such as inulin, maltodextrin, and polydextrose.  It seems doubtful that these are as healthy as natural fibers occurring in foods. 


But why am I telling you about dietary fiber at all?  And why now, when everyone is focused on pink ribbons?  Because it plays a very important role in breast cancer prevention.  The details of this were published in February 2016 in the medical journal, Pediatrics, authored by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health.  Here’s a short summary, quoting directly from the article: “ …consumption of foods high in fiber reduce breast cancer risk. These results also suggest that dietary fiber intake during adolescence and early adulthood may be particularly important. Our findings are in line with the American Cancer Society guidelines to consume foods rich in fiber such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”


Some points I want to highlight from this.  The risk reduction for women who had a history of higher fiber intake was not small, it was significant.  Second, the effect seemed to be most marked for the women who had a higher fiber intake during their adolescent and young adult years, and this effect lasted for decades.  Third, notice that whole grains are included in the cancer prevention recommendations.  Many current fad diets are phobic about grains, in my view a dangerous dietary trend.  I am not a fan of refined grain products that turn grain flour into a sugar equivalent.  But whole grains are important, for this and many other reasons.  So when thinking “what to eat now…” make vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains among your top choices.  Especially if you are less than half my age! 

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