Relationship between dietary fiber and cancer: metabolic, physiologic, and cellular mechanisms

Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1986 Dec;183(3):299-310. doi: 10.3181/00379727-183-42423.


The relationships between fiber consumption and human cancer rates have been examined, together with an analysis of the effects of individual dietary fibers on the experimental induction of large bowel cancer. The human epidemiology indicates an inverse correlation between high fiber consumption and lower colon cancer rates. Cereal fiber sources show the most consistent negative correlation. However, human case-control studies in general fail to confirm any protective effect due to dietary fiber. Case-control studies indicate that if any source of dietary fiber is possibly antineoplastic then it is probably vegetables. These results may mean that purified fibers alone do not inhibit tumor development, whereas it is likely that some other factors present in vegetables are antineoplastic. Experiments in laboratory animals, using chemical induction of large bowel cancer, have in general shown a protective effect with supplements of poorly fermentable fibers such as wheat bran or cellulose. In contrast, a number of fermentable fiber supplements including pectin, corn bran, oat bran, undegraded carageenan, agar, psyllium, guar gum, and alfalfa have been shown to enhance tumor development. Possible mechanisms by which fibers may inhibit colon tumorigenesis include dilution and adsorption of any carcinogens and/or promoters contained within the intestinal lumen, the modulation of colonic microbial metabolic activity, and biological modification of intestinal epithelial cells. Dietary fibers not only bind carcinogens, bile acids, and other potential toxins but also essential nutrients, such as minerals, which can inhibit the carcinogenic process. Fermentation of fibers within the large bowel results in the production of short chain fatty acids, which in vivo stimulate cell proliferation, while butyrate appears to be antineoplastic in vitro. Evidence suggests that if dietary fibers stimulate cell proliferation during the stage of initiation, then this may lead to tumor enhancement. Fermentation also lowers luminal pH, which in turn modifies colonic microbial metabolic acidity, and is associated with increased epithelial cell proliferation and colon carcinogenesis. Because dietary fibers differ in their physiochemical properties it has been difficult to identify a single mechanism by which fibers modify colon carcinogenesis. Clearly, more metabolic and physiological studies are needed to fully define the mechanisms by which certain fibers inhibit while others enhance experimental colon carcinogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Cellulose
  • Colonic Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Colonic Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Diagnosis-Related Groups
  • Dietary Fiber / administration & dosage*
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Feces
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Motility
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Triticum


  • Carcinogens
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Cellulose