High dietary fiber intake may help prevent strokes. The belief that dietary fiber intake is protectively associated with certain diseases was postulated 40 years ago and then enormously fueled and kept alive by a great body of science since. Today it is generally believed that eating lots of fiber-rich foods helps prevent obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases such as stroke.
Strokes are the second most common cause of death worldwide. Moreover, stroke is a leading cause of disability, and so preventing strokes in the first place--what's called primary prevention--should therefore, be a key public health priority (see How to Prevent a Stroke).
The best observational studies to date found that fiber appears to significantly protect against the risk of stroke. Different strokes for different folks, depending, evidently, on how much fiber they ate. Notably, increasing fiber just seven grams a day was associated with a 7% reduction in stroke risk. And seven grams is easy, that's like a serving of whole grain pasta with tomato sauce and an apple.
What's the mechanism? Maybe it's that fiber helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Or it could just be that those eating more fiber are just eating more vegetables, or fewer calories, or less meat and fat, or improving digestion, all of which may slim us down and lower our blood pressure and the amount of inflammation in our bodies. Does it really matter, though? As Dr. Burkitt commented on the biblical passage, "A man scatters seed on the land--the seed sprouts and opens--how, he does not know," the farmer doesn't wait to find out. Had the farmer postponed his sowing until he understood seed germination, he would not have lasted very long. So yes, let's keep trying to figure out why fiber is protective, but in the meanwhile, we should be increasing our intake of fiber, which is to say increasing our intake of whole plant foods.
It's never too early to start eating healthier. Strokes are one of many complications of arterial stiffness. Though our first stroke might not happen until our 50's, our arteries may have been stiffening for decades leading up to it. Hundreds of kids were followed for 24 years, from age 13 in through 36 and researchers found that lower intake of fiber during a young age was associated with stiffening of the arteries leading up to the brain. Even by age 13, they could see differences in arterial stiffness depending on diet. Fiber intake is important at any age.
Again, it doesn't take much. One extra apple a day or an extra quarter cup of broccoli might translate into meaningful differences in arterial stiffness in adulthood. If you really don't want a stroke, we should try to get 25 grams a day of soluble fiber (found concentrated in beans, oats, nuts, and berries) and 47 grams a day of insoluble fiber (concentrated in whole grains). One would have to eat an extraordinarily healthy diet to get that much, yet these cut-off values could be considered as the minimum recommended daily intake of soluble and insoluble fiber to prevent stroke. The researchers admit these are higher than those commonly and arbitrarily proposed as "adequate" levels by scientific societies, but should we care about what authorities think is practical? They should just share the best scienceand let us make up our own minds.
Someone funded by Kellogg's wrote in to complain that in practice, such fiber intakes are "unachievable" and that the message should just be the more, the better--like maybe just have a bowl of cereal or something.
The real Dr. Kellogg was actually one of our most famous physicians, credited for being one of the first to sound the alarm about smoking, and who may have been the first American physician to have recognized the field of nutrition as a science. He would be rolling in his grave today if he knew what his family's company had become.
More on preventing strokes can be found here:
- Preventing Strokes with Diet
- Eliminating 90% of Heart Disease Risk
- Food Antioxidants, Stroke, and Heart Disease
- Best Foods to Reduce Stroke Risk
- Chocolate & Stroke Risk
- Does Diet Soda Increase Stroke Risk as Much as Regular Soda?
More on the wonders of fiber in:
- Dr. Burkitt's F-Word Diet
- Fiber vs. Breast Cancer
- Breast Cancer and Constipation
- Juicing Removes More Than Just Fiber
- Gut Microbiome - Strike it Rich with Whole Grains
- Microbiome: The Inside Story
- Getting Starch to Take the Path of Most Resistance
- Brown, Black, Purple, and Red Unlike White on Rice
- The Five-to-One Fiber Rule
- Is the Fiber Theory Wrong?
It really is never too early to start eating healthier. See, for example, Heart Disease Starts in Childhood, How to Prevent Prediabetes in Children, Heart Disease May Start in the Womb, and Should All Children Have their Cholesterol Checked?
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:
- 2012: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death
- 2013: More Than an Apple a Day
- 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food
- 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet
- 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers
Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.