We've all heard of the "fountain of youth." A large new research study suggests that more dietary fiber may be the true key to a living a longer and healthier life.
Conducted by The National Institutes of Health and AARP, the study of 388,000 men and women over a 9-year period indicates that those who eat a high fiber diet have a lower risk of death from heart disease, infectious disease and respiratory illnesses.
The study also ties fiber with a lower risk of cancer deaths in men, but not women, possibly because men are more likely to die from cancers related to diet, like cancers of the esophagus. And it finds the overall benefit to be strongest for diets high in fiber from grains.
But how should this information shape our daily eating habits? Fortunately, we have nutritionists Knarig Khatchadurian Meyer, Ph.D., R.D., Tsolig Sunny Shahinian, M.S., R.D., and Verzhine Daglyan, B.S., R.D., to help us sort it out.
1. Ramp up fiber consumption.
"The average American eats only about 15 grams of fiber each day, much less than the current daily recommendation of 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men," noted Dr. Khatchadurian. She added that the best sources of fiber are whole grain foods, colorful fruits with the skin on, and a variety of vegetables.
In the new study, the people who met the guidelines were less likely to die during the 9-year follow-up period. The men and women who ate the highest amount of fiber were 22 percent less likely to die from any cause compared to those who ate the lowest amount.
2. Get fiber from whole grain foods, not supplements.
Whole grains also contain vitamins and minerals, which may play a role in reducing risk. For that reason, supplements may not be as effective. "Nothing beats the original food," Ms. Shahininan said. She suggested substituting whole wheat bread for white bread as a simple way to increase fiber from grains.
3. What a high-fiber diet looks like.
A woman who wants to meet the 25 gram guidelines for daily fiber intake could eat:
1/3 cup of bran cereal (9 grams)
1/2 cup of cooked beans (10 grams)
a small apple with skin (4 grams)
1/2 cup of mixed vegetables (4 grams)
To reach 38 grams, a man could eat all that - plus:
about 23 almonds (4 grams)
a baked potato (3 grams)
an oat bran muffin (3 grams)
an orange (3 grams)
"Remember to increase your fiber intake slowly and remember to drink plenty of fluids. You will need more fluid with your increased fiber intake to avoid any gastrointestinal discomfort," noted Ms. Daglyan.
4. Attention: Diabetics and Heart Patients
The evidence for fiber's benefits has been strongest in diabetes and heart disease, where it's thought to improve cholesterol levels, blood pressure, inflammation and blood sugar levels. Fiber's benefits also may come from its theorized ability to bind to toxins and move them out of the body quicker. High-fiber diets can promote weight loss by making people feel full, which has its own health-promoting effects.
5. Better health overall.
However it works, fiber may offer a prevention benefit against killers like pneumonia and flu, the new study suggests. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables and beans. But fiber from grains was most strongly tied to the lowered risk in the study.
The study, appearing in Archives of Internal Medicine, included more than 388,000 adults, ages 50 to 71, They filled out a questionnaire in 1995 or 1996 about their eating habits. It asked them to estimate how often they ate 124 food items. After nine years, more than 31,000 of the participants had died. National records were used to find out who died and the cause of death.
The researchers took into account other risk factors including weight, education level, smoking and health status and still saw lower risks of death in people who ate more fiber.
"The results suggest that the benefits of dietary fiber go beyond heart health," said Dr. Khatchadurian.
Previous research linked a high intake of dietary fiber with lowered risk of heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women. In a large cohort study over 6 years including over 40,000 male health professionals at Harvard University, researchers found that high total dietary fiber intake as associated with a 40% lower risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks, when compared to a low dietary fiber intake. Additionally, just a 10 g increase in fiber intake lowered risk for cardiovascular disease by 17%.
Click here to read U.S. Government Dietary Guidelines.