When it comes to fiber, cereal fiber may be your best choice

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

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If I were paid for the hours I spend reading food labels in search of a high-fiber breakfast cereal that my family will eat, I could retire happily munching granola.

But those hours have yet to pay off. My son and husband don’t like bran cereals or granola. And the tastier commercial cereals don’t even come close to meeting the expert-recommended 5 grams of fiber per serving, even the ones that claim to have “whole grains.” Which is why a new study from the National Cancer Institute is prompting me to take a different approach.

In this study, fiber was the hero. But it wasn’t just any fiber—it was “cereal fiber,” the kind you expect to find in a box of cereal. Among nearly 400,000 people who took part in the study, those who ate the most fiber (29 grams per day for men and 26 grams per day for women) over a nine-year period were 22% less likely to die from any cause than people who ate the least fiber (13 grams per day for men and 11 grams per day for women). The big winners were people who got the most fiber from grains, not fruits and vegetables. The study was published in Archives of Internal Medicine. Cereal fiber is found in bran, but it’s also in whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, seeds, barley, and other whole grains.

Even more interesting was a letter that accompanied the study, written by Lawrence de Koning, Ph.D. and Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., both from the Harvard School of Public Health. They suggested that it may not be cereal fiber, by itself, that delivers health benefits. Instead, it could be the natural package of nutrients that comes with fiber—vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients ranging from antioxidants to zinc that protect human tissues from the damage and inflammation common to diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn disease.

In other words, food that still has intact whole grains with the nutrient combination found in nature may be what delivers real benefits, rather than processed foods that are often stripped of their fiber and nutrients and then “fortified” in the manufacturing process (like most boxed cereals). As the researchers put it, “a fiber-rich diet similar to that of early man is probably healthier than current Western-type diets.”

All this has renewed my campaign to pack more fiber into my family’s diet—but in a different way. Instead of continuing to hunt for a box of processed cereal to solve our family’s fiber problem, my plan is to dish up whole grains in breads, rice, and pasta. I can put barley in soups, sunflower seeds in salads, and some whole wheat flour in recipes calling for flour. For breakfast, instead of a commercial cereal, I’ll try putting 100% whole wheat toast with peanut butter and banana in front of my son. For myself, I like steel-cut oats, a 100% whole grain cereal.

There are other ways to work whole grains into everyday eating. The 2011 edition of Harvard’s Special Health Report, “Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition,” offers five steps you can take to make sure your diet includes enough fiber from whole-grain sources. At this link, you’ll find an excerpt and a Table of Contents for this new Special Health Report.

A good rule of thumb is to try to make half of all the grains you eat whole grains. That’s the recommendation from the new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued last month.

Be aware that whole grain is not the same as fiber. While all whole grains have fiber (the indigestible casing of the grain) fiber doesn’t always include the whole grain. Bran is a good example. It’s just the casing. And some whole grains have more fiber than others. So look on the label for fiber but also for the words “100% whole wheat or whole grain.”

Hmm. It seems my label-reading days aren’t over yet.


  1. Chance

    I find it interestingly that pretty much all of the non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits are the ones that are highest in both fiber and nutrients! Great Article – Thanks!


  2. Barb Hutchins

    I have always loved the high fibre foods..grew up with homemade oatmeal bread, add wheat germ and wheat bran to cereals, etc., We eat 3-4 vegetables with dinner meal and 4 oz portion of meat. However during the past 5 weeks I have had serious painful,diarrhea, etc. and have survived on the BRATT diet. Now I am advised I have been eating way too much fibre, and for the next two weeks absolutely no wheat products, dairy, coffee, tea (de-caf included)..almost what looks like a gluten-free diet to me.
    I am allowed white rice, rice cakes, some vegetables, fruit. What is happening here. Why did my high fibre diet suddenly trigger this diviticulosis-like problem. I have heard the a paper was given at a Physicians Conference this past month, by a Harvard staff member that addressed the exact diet I have been put on.
    I’ll appreciate any answers. B

  3. Cathy Ochs

    I have found that a bit of searching for high fibre breads these days, can reveal some really tasty high fibre products which taste absolutely delicious.

  4. Diet, Health and Beauty

    thanks for such informative post

  5. Richard Kawane

    Great Article, I want nothing more than to ensure that my whole family are healthy inside and out. Lately I have read so much about the importance of whole food fiber and this article is another great example. We have taken to brown rice and wholemeal and multi-grain breads and wholemeal pasta. Th change took a little getting used to for the kids, but they understand it is for their best.
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  6. Cheok Joe

    Thanks for your interesting post on adding fiber to our diet. Understand grains do contain a harmful substance called gluten, how about Quinoa? I read that it is gluten-free.

  7. Kay Cahill Allison
    Kay Cahill Allison

    Yes, We need more good recipies and ideas for using whole grains. And we all need to get used to chewing our food a bit more, just like those early humans who ate food as nature made it.

  8. Maria Speck

    This study invites us to give whole grains a prominent place at our tables. But how to cook whole grains is still a mystery to many people — my upcoming cookbook “ANCIENT GRAINS FOR MODERN MEALS” invites you to explore their many flavors and textures with 100 Mediterranean-inspired recipes, personal stories and lots of background. I was raised in Greece and Germany, and have a lifelong passion for bulgur, wheat berries, and dark German breads made with whole grain rye flour. Now, they taste even better!

  9. Nick Pokoluk

    How about sweet potatoes, red beets, corn and carrots? I love all these and I have heard differing comments on their value vis-a-vis higher glycemic index.

    • Kay Cahill Allison
      Kay Cahill Allison

      Sweet potatoes, red beets, and carrots are all really great sources of nutrients. But if we’re talking about fiber, the newest science says fiber from grains (cereal fiber) not vegetables makes the biggest impact on health. Of course new studies are always coming out.

  10. Clara Silverstein

    Interesting that cereal seems so healthy but other foods might be a better choice for fiber. My son and I found an old cookbook and made cornmeal mush this summer – I wonder how that stacked up!

    • Kay Cahill Allison
      Kay Cahill Allison

      Stone ground cornmeal is a good start, but corn meal in general doesn’t have nearly as much fiber as some other whole grains. Try steel cut oats with 8 grams per serving compared with 3 grams for cornmeal.

  11. Mike Hague

    Read the study carefully, cofounding variables, The fiber-lovers were almost twice as likely to be vigorous exercisers (working out more than three hours a week), were much less likely to smoke, had lower intakes of alcohol, and were generally more educated than those with the lowest fiber intake; the researchers failed to account for poor living conditions and socioeconomic status, both of which are huge contributors to infectious and respiratory disease. Grains in our diet 10,000 years old, our digestive system 2 million years+ to evolve….hello

    • Joya Ganguly

      Staying away from hype filled diets is one sure way to keep a healthy balance between losing pounds and staying fit. Trying different health products including weight gain teas to stay healthy might be a workable alternative. Regards for a well structured informational guide.

  12. Doc

    Grains contain a substance called gluten. Which is very harmful to the body. Gluten is known to cause many Autoimmune disorders. Gluten is the CAUSE of Chron’s disease, you can not fight Chron’s by eating whole grains. You MUST eliminate them completely. Gluten, found in all grains, inflames your body. When you have problems like RA, when you eat grains, its like throwing gas on a fire, you are just making it worse. The diet that would best suit people suffering from these ailments is a ANTI-INFLAMMATORY diet, like vegetables, grass fed meat, and eating a lot of good fats; olive oil, salmon, raw almonds, avocados. I have seen many improvements in peoples lives when getting off gluten. From loosing 10 lbs, to regaining energy and vitality. By eliminating that that crutch (gluten) from your life. You will notice a significant change.

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