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Can more fiber restore microbiome diversity?

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Much of the fiber has been removed from a great many of today's processed foods, and this has an impact on the "friendly bacteria" in the gut, now called the microbiome. This article reminds us of the importance of various kinds of fiber, not only in preventing constipaton, but in maintaining the health of the microbiome. -Kathrynne




Public Release: 11-Apr-2016
Can more fiber restore microbiome diversity?

Cell Press

Scientists are pushing to restore human health in Western countries by changing our diet to restore the microbial species lost over the evolution of Western diet. In a Commentary published April 11 in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, researchers at the University of Alberta advocate for strategically increasing dietary fiber intake as one path forward in regaining microbial biodiversity.

Insufficient nutrients for our gut microbes have been linked to a loss of certain beneficial bacterial species in industrialized societies and are likely impacting our immunological and metabolic health, although more data is needed. For example, most Westerners consume half of the amount of dietary fiber recommended by dietary guidelines, which nutritionists refer to as the "fiber gap," which is a problem because dietary fiber is the primary source of nutrition (e.g., carbohydrates) accessible to gut bacteria in humans.

"The idea to boost fiber levels is not new," says Jens Walter of the University of Alberta, Canada. "However, depletion of the microbiome adds a new perspective to this low-fiber Western diet that we are currently eating."

Earlier this year, Stanford University's Justin Sonnenburg (doi: 10.1038/nature16504) found that mice fed a typical Western diet (high in fat and carbohydrates and low in fiber) transferred a lower diversity of beneficial microbial species to future generations. The re-introduction of the microbes' preferred fiber at that stage did not result in a return of some (good) species, indicating that extinctions had occurred in only a few generations.

Walter and co-author Edward Deehan, his PhD student, are concerned that a dramatic shift away from a diet similar to the one under which the human-microbiome symbiosis evolved is a key factor in the rise of non-communicable disorders like obesity.

"There is a lot of epidemiological evidence that fiber is beneficial, and food products containing dietary fiber have FDA-approved health claims for both colon cancer and coronary heart disease. There is also quite a bit of clinical evidence (although it is less consistent)," Walter says. "The most pressing issue at the moment that neither consumption of fiber in society nor the doses used in clinical research are high enough."

Walter has noticed that often researchers evaluating fiber doses in diets and health outcomes do so with "doses of fiber that [he] would consider physiologically irrelevant. Most of these studies use 5-15 grams of fiber; I would not think that these amounts would be actually beneficial," he says.

People living in non-industrialized societies have an average intake of fiber that is much higher than the low norms of Western societies. The authors note the recent work from the Stephen J.D. O'Keefe lab in Nature Communications (doi:10.1038/ncomms7342) in which modern African-Americans were given a traditional South-African diet that contained 55 grams of daily dietary fiber and had improved markers for colon cancer within two weeks.

In their Commentary, the authors propose a concerted effort by scientists, food producers, policy makers, and regulatory groups to address the fiber gap. They emphasize that clinical assessments of different fiber types and fiber-enriched foods on microbiome outcomes are needed.

Jens Walter also asserts that the challenge of restoring diverse gut inhabitants will be best met with regulatory policies that are specific to food, and not just the same as those for drugs. "To have a regulatory environment that makes it extremely hard to obtain health claims for food substances is very detrimental," says Walter. He is hopeful that regulatory policies will change to encourage innovative research on disease prevention by modulating the diverse microbial communities humans have evolved with and the ways our diet shapes them and by extension, all of us.


Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, Deehan and Walter: "The Fiber Gap and the Disappearing Gut Microbiome: Implications for Human Nutrition" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tem.2016.03.001

Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism (@Trends_Endo_Met), published by Cell Press, is a monthly review journal that publishes polished, concise, highly read and cited articles of topics at the cutting edge of metabolic diseases covering both clinical and research aspects of the field; from state-of-the-art treatments of endocrine diseases to new developments in molecular biology. Learn more: http://www.cell.com/trends/endocrinology-metabolism. To receive Cell Press media alerts please contact press@cell.com.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

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Joseph Caputo



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Yes: bananas, whole grains such as barley and oats, onions, garlic, cooked dried beans, honey, and acacia gum (gum Arabic) are all pretty easy to find year round. More seasonally, artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, berries, asparagus, leeks, apples, jicama, burdock, chicory, and dandelion root.


If you're not used to a high intake of prebiotic foods, or if you don't have a healthy probiotic colony in the gut, start with a small amount of prebiotic foods, and increase gradually. The indigestible fibers can just as easily feed any harmful bacteria that may be present if there are insufficient probiotic bacteria to consume them; and the fibers can also cause considerable gas and bloating if the probiotic bacteria are out of balance. Cooking destroys some of the prebiotic fiber, so eating cooked vegetables -- onions, artichokes, etc., is a good way to get started.

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