Five servings of fruits and vegetables a day is another excellent way to boost fiber intake.
research confirms what nutritionists have said for years--eating lots
of high-fiber foods is a great way to protect your health. That might
sound like an outrageous claim. But according to researchers conducting
the biggest-ever study into the relationship between diet and cancer,
it's the truth. For 15 years the European Prospective Investigation of
Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) has examined the dietary habits of more
than 400,000 people in nine European countries. EPIC researchers
released preliminary results from their long-term cohort study at a
nutrition conference last year in Lyons, France.
Among other findings, the researchers determined that fiber is
particularly important in reducing the risk of colorectal cancer, the
second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. "We
placed 400,000 people on the study into five sets according to their
consumption of fiber," explains Professor Sheila Bingham of the Dunn
Human Nutrition Unit at Cambridge University. "The group eating the
most fiber reduced their risk of colorectal cancer by as much as 40
The EPIC findings appear to confirm what many nutritionists have said
about fiber for decades. Nonetheless, you might remember headlines from
a couple of years ago warning that fiber is "useless" as protection
against colorectal cancer. So what gives?
These cautionary health bulletins came in response to studies calling
the protective role of fiber into question. One of the sharpest blows
to fiber's reputation came in 1999 when the New England Journal of
Medicine published results from the Nurses' Health Study. This
research--an analysis of the diet and disease patterns of 89,000 male
and female nurses--found that participants who ate the largest amount
of fiber did not reduce their risk for colon cancer.
"We have long touted and believed in the protective role of fiber, so
that study was a little disconcerting," says Kathleen Zelman, a
registered dietitian and Atlanta-based spokesperson for the American
Dietetic Association. "How-ever, we didn't change our recommendations,
because you don't do that based on one or two studies."
In fact, some critics of the "anti-fiber" findings pointed to certain
shortcomings in the way the research was conducted. Meanwhile, other
studies highlighted fiber's protective properties. A Harvard University
team, for example, found that certain enzymes derived from fiber have
the ability to block the colon cancer process.
Researchers with the EPIC project--which produced the first positive
results about fiber from such a large group--say its sheer scope goes a
long way toward clearing up the confusion. Those positive results were
no surprise to Bingham, a leading expert on fiber. "There are very good
mechanisms whereby fiber protects against colorectal cancer," she says.
Some might feel the jury is still out on fiber's role as a cancer
fighter. Nonetheless, given the many benefits of high-fiber foods like
whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, the arguments for adding more
fiber to your diet are overwhelming. A high-fiber diet can reduce
levels of blood cholesterol, help maintain regularity, and fend off
gastrointestinal conditions such as diverticulitis.
Unlike their processed counterparts, such as white rice or white bread,
whole-grain foods retain their original fiber, the nutrient-rich bran
and germ, and the starchy endosperm. That might sound academic, but
from a nutritional standpoint it makes a big difference.
"Processing whole grains to create a refined grain removes most of
their nutritional content," says Verne Varona, a nationally known
health educator and author of Nature's Cancer-fighting Foods. "People
mistakenly believe that the laws requiring white flour to be enriched
compensate for the many valuable nutrients lost during processing. It's
true that a few synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to our white
flour, but this doesn't even come close to restoring all the lost
Whole wheat, for example, contains calcium, iron, magnesium,
phosphorus, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium. It also has
ascorbic acid, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin
B6, folate, and vitamin E. "Most of these nutrients are in the bran and
wheat germ and are stripped out during processing," Varona notes. The
milling process also removes hundreds of other phytochemicals that may
help reduce risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Whole Grains: The Perfect Carbs
The body converts all carbohydrates into glucose. But it breaks down
processed grains much more quickly than intact grains. The rapid
breakdown of processed carbohydrates often causes wide swings in blood
sugar that can trigger hunger cravings, cause the release of stress
hormones, and initiate the buildup of arterial plaques. Varona compares
foods made from refined grains to quick-burning newspaper. Whole
grains, on the other hand, are like logs that burn for hours and
provide continuous heat.
Common whole grains include brown rice, barley, millet, oats,
buckwheat, rye, and whole wheat. You might also want to experiment with
traditional Native American grains such as quinoa ("keen-wa") or
amaranth, available in health- food stores. Good whole-grain recipes
are easy to find on the Internet. But enjoying these highly nutritious
foods can require patience--whole grains generally take longer to cook
than refined grains.
Adopting the Right Diet
So what's the best way to boost the amount of fiber in your diet? And
how much is enough? In the EPIC study, those who enjoyed the most
protection from colorectal cancer ate at least 50 percent more fiber
than their counterparts. This is in line with current recommendations
to increase your fiber intake by 50 percent. Following the National
Cancer Institute's "5 A Day" recommendations--which suggest eating five
servings of fruits and vegetables a day--is another excellent way to
boost fiber intake.
"There's no fat in fruits or vegetables, and they're loaded with
vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals--all kinds of things that are
beneficial for preventing cancer," says Zelman. "Another great way to
boost fiber intake is to start the day with a cereal that has the word
'bran' in the title. A bran-based cereal generally gives you the most
fiber out of typical breakfast cereals."
But be careful. Many breads and breakfast cereals that contain next to
nothing in the way of whole grains are misleadingly labeled as being
"multi-grain" or having "natural grain goodness." If the package
doesn't say "100 percent whole grain by weight" or "100 percent whole
wheat," take a closer look at the label. The most plentiful ingredients
in a food are always listed first. So if the first ingredient listed is
"whole oats," that food is made from whole grains. If "whole oats"
comes ninth on the list, you've got an impostor.
To guarantee adequate dietary fiber, Varona suggests eating at least
one cup of whole grains each day. "This could be a cup of rolled oats,
cooked with water and with added toppings of roasted almonds, cinnamon,
or a small amount of raisins," he says. "I'd also recommend brown rice,
which is great with dinner entrées, or barley, which is wonderful in
soups with vegetables or mixed with legumes such as lentils."
The point is to enjoy better health and better-tasting food
simultaneously. Once you've experienced the rich, nutty flavor of fresh
whole-grain bread, you'll save the white stuff for the ducks.