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What does fiber do?
Dietary fiber comes from the thick cell wall of plants. It is an indigestible complex carbohydrate. Fiber is divided into two general categories-water soluble and water insoluble.

Soluble fiber lowers cholesterol.1 An analysis of many trials of soluble fiber reveals it has a cholesterol-lowering effect, but the degree of cholesterol reduction in many studies was quite modest.2 For unknown reasons, diets higher in insoluble fiber (mostly unrelated to cholesterol levels) have been reported to correlate better with protection against heart disease in both men and women.3 4

Soluble fibers can also lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, and some researchers find that increasing fiber decreases the body’s need for insulin—a good sign for diabetics.5 However, a research review reveals that just how much moderate amounts of soluble fiber really help people with diabetes remains unclear.6 As with heart disease, a clear mechanism to explain how insoluble fiber helps diabetics has not been identified. Nonetheless, diets high in insoluble fiber (from whole grains) associate with protection from adult-onset diabetes.7

Insoluble fiber softens stool, which helps move it through the intestinal tract in less time. For this reason, insoluble fiber is partially effective as a treatment for constipation.8 The reduction in "transit time" has also been thought to partially explain the link between a high fiber diet and a reduced risk of colon cancer as found in some studies,9 though anticancer effects unrelated to "transit time" have also been reported.10

The true relationship between fiber and colon cancer risk has recently been clouded by data coming from several directions. In animal research, wheat bran is proving to be more protective than other diets containing equal amounts of insoluble fiber, suggesting that fiber in wheat may not be the primary cause of protection sometimes associated with wheat.11 In human research, a recent well respected study found no significant link between fiber and colon cancer prevention.12 A trial from South Africa found that avoidance of meat and dairy, and not the presence of fiber, appears to be primarily responsible for a low risk of colon cancer.13 As a result of these negative findings some researchers and doctors have begun to question the idea that insoluble fiber protects against colon cancer, a concept that had arisen from a large body of older research.

Fiber also fills the stomach, reducing appetite. In theory, fiber should therefore reduce eating, leading to weight loss. However, at least some research has found increased fiber to have no effect on body weight despite decreasing appetite.14

Lignan, a fiber-like substance, has mild antiestrogenic activity. Probably for this reason, high lignan levels in urine (and therefore dietary intake) have been linked to protection from breast cancer in humans.15

Where is fiber found?
Whole grains are particularly high in insoluble fiber. Oats, barley, beans, fruit (but not fruit juice), psyllium, and some vegetables contain significant amounts of both forms of fiber and are the best sources of soluble fiber. The best source of lignan, by far, is flaxseed (not flaxseed oil, regardless of packaging claims to the contrary).

Fiber has been used in connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual health concern for complete information)


Health Concerns

Diverticular disease
High cholesterol


High blood pressure
Weight loss


High triglycerides
Irritable bowel syndrome (fiber other than wheat)
Kidney stones
Peptic ulcer
Premenstrual syndrome

Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

Who is likely to be deficient of fiber?
Most people who consume a typical Western diet are fiber-deficient. Eating white flour, white rice, and fruit juice (as opposed to whole fruit) all contribute to this problem. Many so-called whole wheat products contain mostly white flour. Read labels and avoid “flour” and “unbleached flour,” both of which are simply white flour. Junk food is also fiber depleted. The diseases listed above are more likely to occur with low-fiber diets.

The benefits of eating whole grains are largely derived from the beneficial constituents present in the outer layers of the grains, which are stripped away in making white flour and white rice. Preliminary research has found that women who ate mostly whole grain fiber had a lower mortality rate than women who ate a comparable amount of refined grains.16

How much fiber is usually taken?
Western diets generally provide approximately 10 grams of fiber per day. So-called “primitive societies” consume 40–60 grams per day. Increasing fiber intake to the amounts found in primitive diets may be desirable.

Are there any side effects or interactions with fiber?

While people can be allergic to certain high-fiber foods (most commonly wheat), high-fiber diets are more likely to improve health than cause any health problems. Beans, a good source of soluble fiber, also contain special sugars that are often poorly digested, leading to gas. Special enzyme products are now available in supermarkets to reduce this problem by improving digestion of these sugars.

Fiber reduces the absorption of many minerals. However, high-fiber diets also tend to be high in minerals, so the consumption of a high-fiber diet does not appear to impair mineral status. However, logic suggests that calcium, magnesium and multimineral supplements should not be taken at the same time as a fiber supplement.

Bran, an insoluble fiber, reduces the absorption of calcium enough to cause urinary calcium to fall.17 In one study, supplementation with 10 grams of rice bran twice a day reduced the recurrence rate of kidney stones by nearly 90% in recurrent stone formers.18 However, it is not known whether other types of bran would have the same effect. Before supplementing with bran, people should check with a doctor, because some people—even a few with kidney stones—do not absorb enough calcium. For those people, supplementing with bran might deprive them of much-needed calcium.

People with scleroderma (systemic sclerosis) should consult a doctor before taking fiber supplements or eating high-fiber diets. Although a gradual introduction of fiber in the diet may improve bowel symptoms in some cases, there have been several reports of people with scleroderma developing severe constipation and even bowel obstruction requiring hospitalization after fiber supplementation.19

Are there any drug interactions?

Certain medicines may interact with fiber. Refer to drug interactions for a list of those medicines