How to Design a Misleading Study to Show Diet Doesn’t Work

Image Credit: Yoshihide Nomura / Flickr. This image has been modified.

A study out of the University of North Carolina found no association between dietary fiber intake and diverticulosis. They compared those who ate the highest amount of fiber, 25 grams, to those who ate the smallest amount, which was three times lower at only 8 grams. Finding no difference in disease rates, researchers concluded that a low-fiber diet was not associated with diverticulosis.

The university sent out a press release entitled: “Diets high in fiber won’t protect against diverticulosis.” The media picked it up and ran headlines such as “High-fiber diet may not protect against diverticulosis, study finds.” It went all over the paleo blogs and even medical journals, publishing such statements as an “important and provocative paper…calls into question” the fiber theory of the development of diverticulosis. Other editorials, though, caught the study’s critical flaw. To understand this, let’s turn to another dietary deficiency disease: scurvy.

Medical experiments on prisoners at Iowa State Penitentiary showed that clinical signs of scurvy start appearing after just 29 days without vitamin C. Experiments on pacifists during World War II showed that it takes about 10 mg of vitamin C a day to prevent scurvy. Imagine going back a few centuries when they were still trying to figure scurvy out. Dr. James Linde had this radical theory that citrus fruits could cure scurvy. What if an experiment was designed to test this crazy theory, in which sailors were given the juice of either one wedge of lemon or three wedges of lemon each day? If a month later on the high seas there was no difference in scurvy rates, one might see headlines from printing presses touting that a low-vitamin C diet is not associated with scurvy.

Well, a wedge of lemon only yields about 2 mg of vitamin C, and it takes 10 mg to prevent scurvy. They would have been comparing one vitamin C-deficient dose to another vitamin C-deficient dose. No wonder there would be no difference in scurvy rates. We evolved eating so many plants that we likely averaged around 600 mg of vitamin C a day. That’s what our bodies are biologically used to getting.

What about fiber? How much fiber are we used to getting? More than 100 grams a day! The highest fiber intake group in the North Carolina study was only eating 25 grams, which is less than the minimum recommended daily allowance of about 32 grams. The subjects didn’t even make the minimum! The study compared one fiber-deficient diet to another fiber-deficient diet—no wonder there was no difference in diverticulosis rates.

The African populations with essentially no diverticulosis ate diets consisting in part of very large platefuls of leafy vegetables—similar, perhaps, to what we were eating a few million years ago. They were eating plant-based diets containing 70 to 90 grams of fiber a day. Most vegetarians don’t even eat that many whole plant foods, although some do. At least vegetarians tend to hit the minimum mark, and they have less diverticulosis to show for it. A study of 47,000 people confirmed that “[c]onsuming a vegetarian diet and a high intake of dietary fiber were both associated with a lower risk of admission to hospital or death from diverticular disease.” They had enough people to tease it out. As you’ll see in my video Does Fiber Really Prevent Diverticulosis?, compared to people eating a single serving of meat a day or more, those who ate less than half a serving appeared to have a 16% lower risk and pescatarians (eating no meat except fish) had a risk down around 23%. Both of these results weren’t in and of themselves statistically significant, but eating vegetarian was. Vegetarians had 35% lower risk, and those eating strictly plant-based appeared to be at 78% lower risk.

As with all lifestyle interventions, it only works if you do it. High-fiber diets only work if they’re actually high in fiber.

There’s more great information in my video Diverticulosis: When Our Most Common Gut Disorder Hardly Existed.

This reminds me of an ancient video I did: Flawed Study Interpretation.

People commonly ask Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein?, but maybe they should be more concerned where everyone else is getting their fiber. Ninety-seven percent of Americans don’t even reach the recommended daily minimum.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

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