A University of Illinois study shows that dietary fiber promotes a shift in the gut toward different types of beneficial bacteria. And the microbes that live in the gut, scientists now believe, can support a healthy gastrointestinal tract as well as affect our susceptibility to conditions as varied as type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.
As these microbes ferment fiber in the intestine, short-chain fatty acids and other metabolites are produced, resulting in many health benefits for the host, said Kelly Swanson, a U of I professor of animal sciences.
"When we understand what kinds of fiber best nurture these health-promoting bacteria, we should be able to modify imbalances to support and improve gastrointestinal health," he said.
This research suggests that fiber is good for more than laxation, which means helping food move through the intestines, he added.
"Unfortunately, people eat only about half of the 30 to 35 grams of daily fiber that is recommended. To achieve these health benefits, consumers should read nutrition labels and choose foods that have high fiber content," said Swanson.
In the placebo-controlled, double-blind intervention study, 20 healthy men with an average fiber intake of 14 grams a day were given snack bars to supplement their diet. The control group received bars that contained no fiber; a second group ate bars that contained 21 grams of polydextrose, which is a common fiber food additive; and a third group received bars with 21 grams of soluble corn fiber.
On days 16-21, fecal samples were collected from the participants, and researchers used the microbial DNA they obtained to identify which bacteria were present. DNA was then subjected to 454 pyrosequencing, a "fingerprinting" technique that provides a snapshot of all the bacterial types present.