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Fiber is no fad.


Last January, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report that cast some doubt on the cholesterol-lowering effect of oat bran--an effect that had been, it seemed, well-documented in previous studies. Quite frankly, we don't know what to make of these findings--only time and further research will tell if they have any significance. What we do know is that an overwhelming body of evidence exists to support the logic developed over the past two decades by our good friend Dr. Denis Burkitt that dietary fiber (or the lack thereof) has a profound effect on the incidence of many diseases common to the Western world not found in more primitive societies.

When the results of Dr. Burkitt's studies on the relation of dietary fiber to disease were first published in England two decades ago, he had already achieved international recognition for his pioneer work in Africa on the form of cancer that bears his name, Burkitt's lymphoma. The term "fiber" was not then widely defined as it is now--as a variety complex substances with different properties. Again pioneering in a totally different field of medicine and health, this great and thoroughly modest British surgeon stimulated a vast amount of research that is still going on in attempting to more precisely define fiber's role in the human diet.

One thing is abundantly clear: dietary fiber is a critical element in a well-rounded, healthful diet, and the more we understand about it, the more intelligently we can modify our own diets. We know that two basic kinds of fiber are found in a wide variety of foods--the insoluble fiber of wheat bran and whole grains that acts primarily to speed food through the intestinal tract, and the soluble fiber of such friuts and vegetables as prunes, apples, beans, and oats that may lower blood cholesterol. (Interestingly, the best source of insoluble fiber is a plant not used as food, but whose powdered seeds have long been used to promote regular bowel habits--the psyllium plant--used in such products as Metamucil and Serutan.) Quite aside from any direct effect fiber may have on gastrointestinal motility and absorption (factors in the production of a number of important diseases), there is the obvious benefit of filling one's stomach with high-fiber foods, leaving less room for high-fat foods.

To attain the recommended daily intake of 25 to 35 g of fiber, the National Research Council recommends at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day and at least six servings of bread, cereals and legumes. Although this sounds like a lot, the servings are actually quite small--one slice of bread, for example, or one-third cup of bran cereal. Fortunately, cooking has no effect on fiber content; one can choose among a great variety of foods as well as methods of preparation. Most foods contain both types of fiber, with one type usually higher than the other. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with supplementing one's diet with powdered psyllium seed, particularly if constipation tends to be a problem. A spoonful or two of the powder stirred into a glass of juice first thing in the morning has been found by many to be the answer to a sluggish bowel. And if it also has the desirable effect of lowering one's cholesterol level, what more could one ask?

A final word of advice: read the labels carefully on bread, breakfast cereals and other grain foods. If grams of fiber per serving do not appear on the list, the fiber content may be negligible. Likewise, if the first ingredient on the loaf of bread is enriched flour, wheat flour, or anything other than whole-wheat flour or "stone-ground whole-wheat flour," chances are such a product has no more fiber than ordinary white bread--which is negligible.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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