ARCHIVED CONTENT: As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date each article was posted or last reviewed. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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.