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Fiber Roughs It Out

Can fiber prevent colon cancer? Studies are mixed. But there’s no doubt it’s good for your heart.

WebMD Feature

White bread. Refined flour. Junk food. Each culprits, and together the prime suspects for causing the country's most heinous health ills. Health experts implored Americans to substitute multigrain pancakes for fluffy waffles and bran muffins for bagels. Fiber was the be-all and end-all. It was the lifeboat riding above the tide of colon cancer -- one of the most feared cancers of all.

Researchers dubbed fiber a "colonic broom." The long, stringy strands of whole wheat and other fiber-rich foods formed a meshwork that grabbed on to cancer-causing substances and hustled them out of the intestines. It made sense. Few physicians disputed the recommendations.

Then came the headlines that slowed the momentum. One study involving nearly 90,000 women showed that fiber wasn't the crown prince of nutrients, after all. Women who ate about 28 grams of fiber a day weren't any less likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate no more than 8.5 grams, according to research published in the January 21, 1999 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Along came more studies, published in the May 3, 2003 issue of The Lancet. Only these two studies show that people who eat high fiber diets are 25% less likely to develop colon cancer.

No wonder the public is confused. But don't toss that high-fiber cereal yet. Hold off on buying that loaf of soft, white bread. Fiber does guard against many serious health problems, especially heart disease. The research evidence on that is clear. Indeed, one study published in the October 27, 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that fiber-eating young adults had lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and were less likely to be overweight and develop diabetes.

Researchers say most of us should be eating twice as much fiber as we now consume. The average daily intake is only 12 grams, but we should eat at lease 25 grams of fiber.

That means packing your diet with fiber-rich foods. A small serving -- one cup -- of Raisin Bran yields 7 grams of fiber. A bowl of vegetarian chili at lunch could add to your daily total, with one cup of kidney beans providing more than 7 grams of fiber. Figure in some fruits and vegetables -- and perhaps a fiber supplement sprinkled into your juice -- and you're on your way to meeting your daily goal.

Food for the Heart

The reward for such efforts is a shield against heart disease, showed research published in the September 1999 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Studying the same group of women in the Harvard study, the researchers found that women who managed to eat at least 25 grams of fiber a day were 40% less likely to suffer a heart attack than were women who ate less than 9 grams.

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