Fiber in Your Heart-Healthy Diet

Millions of heart disease victims might be alive today if they simply added a few cents’ worth of vegetable fiber to their daily diets.

A heart healthy diet may provide protection from: cancer of the colon and rectum; ischemic heart disease (the prime cause of heart attacks); diverticular disease of the colon; appendicitis; phlebitis and resulting blood clots to the lungs; obesity; hemorrhoids and varicose veins.

Discoveries about Fiber

The discoveries about fiber all began when English doctors working in African villages noticed that the natives’ bowel movements were about four times as active as those of Englishmen.

Although bowel movements are an embarrassing subject to most people, they are an important source of information for doctors. At first the medical investigators were at a loss to explain the marked difference between the Africans and the English.

Their discovery was even more puzzling. The unabsorbed portions of food consumed by the Africans usually passed through the digestive tract in 30 hours or so. The average Englishman, on the other hand, retained what he ate for a full three weeks.

They learned that the typical villager ate a lot of cornmeal, beans, bananas and potatoes. His daily food ration was notable in only one regard; it was extremely high in vegetable fiber – the hull, bran, skin and other hard-to-digest parts of food that more civilized societies remove in the refining or processing.

The Africans consumed so much of this fiber that their food fairly raced through their digestive systems. Fortunately the doctors did not stop there. They began to look for other differences between the supposedly “deprived” Africans and their more affluent counterparts.

Diet-Related Diseases

After a painstaking analysis of countless records – comparing death and illness rates for English and Africans – they made some remarkable discoveries.

Here, using American rather than English statistics, is what they found:

  • Coronary heart disease, the prime cause of heart attacks responsible for more than one-third of all deaths in the United States, is virtually unknown in rural Africa.
  • Cancer of the colon and rectum, the number two cause of cancer deaths in the US, is extremely rare among rural Africans. (The number one cancer-killer, lung cancer, has until recently been absent too because African villagers did not smoke cigarettes.)
  • Appendicitis, the most common surgical emergency in the US, is almost never encountered among African villagers.
  • Hemorrhoids, the cause of untold suffering in America, is rare among those eating a traditional African diet.
  • Diverticulosis, the most common disease of the colon among Americans, almost never afflicts Africans.
  • Gallstones, varicose veins and phlebitis – all common in the US – are much less common in African villages.
  • Obesity is very rare among Africans who adhere to their traditional diet.

It did not seem possible that the rural African’s simple, almost inadequate diet, could spare him from all these diseases that afflict Americans and Europeans.

But careful analysis of medical records around the world revealed that Africans who adopt a Western diet gradually develop Western diseases. And when Japanese, Turks, Rumanians, and Egyptians – who are almost as free of these conditions as Africans – relinquish their traditional high-fiber diets and begin to eat the way we do, they gradually succumb to these conditions in alarming numbers.

This is not surprising once you understand the role the colon plays in the human body.


The colon is the body’s sewage disposal plant. But it is not a stainless steel holding tank. It is a living organism that continually absorbs a variety of potent chemicals from the residue of digestion. If waste materials are allowed to remain in the colon for days on end, the development of carcinogens (cancer causing compounds) and other complications are greatly increased.

If on the other hand we keep putting partially indigestible fiber into the digestive tract, everything keeps moving at a healthy speed. The colon may also hold the key to heart attacks.

Heart attacks

Most cardiologists now believe that heart attacks are partly caused by the gradual accumulation of a fatty substance called cholesterol in the blood vessels of the heart. Switching to a cardiac diet reduces cholesterol levels, but that requires a drastic change in lifelong eating habits for most Westerners.


Even more surprising is the relation between dietary fiber and obesity. Most African villagers remain lean and lithe throughout their lives – despite consuming up to 3000 calories and 600 grams of carbohydrates a day. But Africans who adopt a Western diet full of refined sugar and processed flour put on weight just as we do.

High-Fiber Diet

There are several reasons for eating a high-fiber diet.

First, high-fiber foods are bulkier and require more chewing than low-fiber foods so they produce a feeling of “fullness” much sooner. People on high-fiber diets also tend to excrete more fat from their bodies. And finally, some evidence indicates that abundant fiber may actually impair the ability of the small intestine to absorb calories.

In short, there seems little doubt that dietary fiber is an essential part of the human diet. And fortunately we can correct the fiber deficiencies of our diets in several ways.

First we might switch to the staple menu of rural Africans and Asians: ground corn, boiled bananas, freshly dug potatoes, plenty of beans. Most Westerners would be understandably reluctant to make that kind of substitution.

The second possibility is to try to select only those foods with the highest fiber content from the grocer’s shelves.

To convert the average Western diet to a high-fiber diet would require the following changes:

  • Use only low-grain products such as whole wheat, rolled oats and brown rice.
  • Consume fresh fruits and vegetables with seeds, strings and skins intact.
  • Cut to a minimum consumption of sweets, ice-cream, soft drinks and other refined-sugar products.
  • Reduce the amount of meat, dairy products and other high-fat foods.

Sources of Fiber

What we need is a palatable, wholesome and inexpensive form of dietary fiber. Many products have been tested and the one that seems to meet the requirements best is bran – a part of each grain of wheat usually lost in the milling process or used as animal fodder.

Bran is relatively cheap and an outstanding source of fiber. The most desirable type from a nutritional standpoint is unprocessed miller’s bran. It comes in the form of dry and rather tasteless flakes easily adapted to anyone’s daily diet.

You might, for instance, sprinkle it over dry breakfast cereal with milk, mix it with cooked cereal, add it to fruit juice, mix it with yogurt, add it to soups and mix it with applesauce, combine it with ground meat when making hamburgers, meat loaf and the like, or add it to any home-baked bread or pastry.

If you can’t find unprocessed bran, substitute a bran cereal.

The amount of bran required varies with the individual. The best procedure is to start with a small amount each day and gradually increase it until the desired results are obtained. For the average adult that means about two teaspoonfuls of pure bran three times a day.

Some people require as much as three tablespoons a day while others do well on a teaspoon three times a day. Children between 5 and 13 should start on half a teaspoon three times daily, while half a teaspoon a day may suffice for children under five.

You’ll soon be able to tell if you are getting the right amount of bran by your bowel movements. They should be regular – once or twice a day – and unstrained.

Other good sources of fiber are:

  • whole-grain products
  • nuts
  • popcorn
  • sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • toasted soybeans and dried fruit

You should, of course, get your doctor’s permission before starting any new diet. But whether you make a significant change in your diet or just add bran, you will begin to enjoy the benefits of restoring fiber to your diet within seven days. Constipation will vanish almost without exception, and you should feel relief from hemorrhoids and other anal-rectal problems.

If you have an elevated cholesterol level, you may want your blood cholesterol level checked just before adding fiber to your diet. Then have your doctor repeat the test six weeks later. The result should be gratifying and reassuring for both doctor and patient.

Another benefit in returning to a high-fiber diet is an indescribable feeling of well-being – a sense that your body is finally functioning the way it was designed to function.

People who have followed the diet characterize that sensation as “feeling alert and energetic” or simply “alive again.” In other words, you’ll eat better, feel better, look better and you can look forward to a longer, happier life.

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