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Diet Causes Diverticular Disease

"Diet and risk of diverticular disease in Oxford cohort of European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): prospective study of British vegetarians and non-vegetarians" by Francesca L. Crowe, published in the July 19, 2011 issue of the British Medical Journal, found, “Consuming 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.”1 This study was of 47,033 men and women living in England or Scotland, of whom 15,459 (33%) reported consuming a vegetarian diet.

Comment: This recent study found that people with a higher fiber diet (greater than 25 grams daily, compared to an average of less than 10 grams consumed by most Westerners and close to 100 grams on the McDougall Diet) had a lower risk of being admitted to a hospital with or dying from diverticular disease. Vegans (who consume no animal foods) had an even lower risk. Dietary fiber is only present in plant foods. Refining, such as in making white flour, removes much of this beneficial fiber. Animal foods, including meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products contain no fiber.

Dr. Denis Burkitt, known as “The Fiber Man,” served as a missionary doctor in Uganda and was appointed senior consultant surgeon to the Ugandan Ministry of Health in 1961. He observed that the diseases he had been trained to treat in Scotland were absent among rural Africans. He saw almost no cases of type-2 diabetes, obesity, appendicitis, diverticular disease, hemorrhoids, dental caries, varicose veins, pulmonary embolism, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), or hiatus hernia, and only one case of gallstones, in 20 years of practice. The reason he saw no diverticular disease in the general population of rural Africans was because of their primarily vegetarian (actually vegan), high-fiber diet based on starches.2
A high-fiber diet results in large stools that are easy to pass. If there is minimal fiber in the diet then the stool is hard to pass and movement requires contractions of the bowel to occur at very high pressures. Years of elevated pressures produce ruptures in the walls of the intestine (balloon-like bulges) called diverticula. Half of the people who have followed the Western diet for more than 50 years have diverticular disease.

When the diverticula become irritated by the unhealthful remnants of digested food, the openings in them can close up, allowing the fluids to become stagnant and infected—a condition known as diverticulitis. Switching to a high-fiber diet will greatly reduce the risk of future bleeding and infection; however, the diverticula do not disappear with a change in diet. The commonly held notion that nuts and seeds get caught in diverticula and cause diverticulitis is unsupported by any scientific research and is untrue.

You can learn much more about the role of the Western diet in the cause of common intestinal diseases by reading my book, Dr. McDougall’s Digestive Tune-up.

1) Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Allen NE, Key TJ. Diet and risk of diverticular disease in Oxford cohort of European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): prospective study of British vegetarians and non-vegetarians. BMJ. 2011 Jul 19;343:d4131. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4131.

2) Trowell HC, Burkitt DP. Diverticular disease in urban Kenyans. Br Med J. 1979 Jun 30;1(6180):1795.

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