Fiber, intestinal sterols, and colon cancer

Am J Clin Nutr. 1978 Mar;31(3):516-26. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/31.3.516.


It has been postulated that dietary fiber's protective effect against the development of colon cancer, diverticular disease, and atherosclerosis may be due to the adsorption and/or dilution of intestinal sterols such as bile acids and neural sterols and their bacterial metabolites by component(s) of fiber. Dietary fiber is made up of four major components-cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, and pectin. There is evidence that hemicellulose and pectin may induce an increase in fecal bile acid excretion in man which may be accompanied by a decrease in serum cholesterol. Natural fibers, such as rolled oats, alfalfa, guar gum, and Bengal gram have been shown to have hypocholesterolemic properties of alfalfa, wheat straw, and some other fibers found considerable amounts of bile acids in vitro. On the other hand, wheat bran, oat hulls, and all the synthetic fibers tested bound only negligible amounts of bile acids under the same conditions. Vegetarians in the United States have lower plasma lipids and different plasma lipoprotein patterns than those of comparable control populations on regular mixed diet. They also have smaller daily fractional turnover rates of cholic acid and deoxycholic acid pool size. In addition, populations on a mixed Western diet, where the rate of large bowel cancer is high (North American, English, Scottish, etc.) degraded and excreted cholesterol and bile acid metabolites to a greater degree than populations where the rate of colon cancer is comparatively low (Ugandan, Japanese, etc). It cannot be denied that the fiber theory linking fiber deficiency with the development of colon cancer and other diseases, is simple, attractive and appears to be firmly based in common sense. When subjected to research studies, however, the situation appears much more complex than expected. Although some progress is being made, the data are often contradictory and confusing, probably due to lack of adequate documentation of fiber intake (e.g., use of dietary fiber instead of crude fiber) and/or the absence of detailed information on the chemistry of the fiber itself.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bile Acids and Salts / metabolism
  • Cellulose* / pharmacology
  • Colonic Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Diet, Vegetarian
  • Dietary Fiber*
  • Digestion
  • Feces / microbiology
  • Humans
  • Intestines / physiology*
  • Lignin / pharmacology
  • Male
  • Pectins / pharmacology
  • Polysaccharides / pharmacology


  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Polysaccharides
  • Pectins
  • Cellulose
  • Lignin