A Diet Lacking in Fiber Wreaks System-Wide Havoc, Scientists Find

It's more than just weight gain—it's chronic inflammation and weak immunity.


The first two episodes of the Netflix documentary series Rotten touch upon important issues in our relationship to food. The first focuses on the dangers of colony collapse in bee populations as well as international companies filling bottles with ingredients that definitely are not honey. The second deals with food allergies, particularly focused on the largest: peanuts.

While these are distinct issues, two themes weave these stories together. First, the impact of our environment on health. Humans have gone to great lengths to separate from nature. Yet we interact with whatever environment we live within. Effects of sedentary existences lived apart from the planet’s rhythms include the slow destruction of our bodies and pretty much every species we come into contact with.

The booming almond industry needs pollinators, which stressed beekeepers (and bees) travel hundreds or thousands of miles to accomplish in California’s central valley each season—adding to the stress. Colony collapse is rampant given the diseases these nomadic bees are now sharing. This is but one example of interdependence that we often overlook. No pollination, no honey, no almonds, no—a lot. 

The rapid onset of food allergies over the course of only one generation provides another example of our exile from nature’s rhythms. We would never eat foods apart from the environment they were grown or captured within until recently. Industrial monocultures are likely, at least in part, to blame for this stunning increase in any or all of the eight allergens, which leads us to the second theme in these episodes: our microbiome. 


These 8 foods make up 90% of all food allergies in the U.S. Image: Fix.com

The bacteria that live inside of our guts is arguably the most important feature of our entire body. While the brain receives the bulk of praise, scientists have more recently raised an inquisitive eyebrow regarding all the data emerging on the microbiome. The relationship between our nervous system and gut (which has its own nervous system) is exceptionally influential on health. 

Our microbiome also directly interacts with our environment. While Purell has proven beneficial for soldiers in foreign territories, constantly sanitizing your hands weakens your immune system when in home territory. Synopsis: let your kids play in dirt. You play in dirt too. Those bacteria are strengthening.

Yet we have many weird relationships with our environment and the foods we eat, often in the invented cause of “purity.” One example is juicing, heralded as the perfect (and profitable) “cleansing” mechanism. Drink juice for five or ten days and your body “resets.” But juice is no different than soda, as you’ve removed the most beneficial part of the fruit: fiber. 

We’ve long known fiber is essential to our diet, in order to “get things moving.” Otherwise known as roughage, dietary fiber is comprised of soluble and insoluble fiber. Both play critical roles in defecation. While too much fiber can cause intestinal gas and bloating, too little, a hallmark of a highly processed diet heavy on sugar, means we’ll turn to laxatives instead of eating the fruits, plants, and grains that offer an abundance of it. 

Fiber also reduces the risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes, and has been shown to lower mortality rates. But its role in digestion is particularly important. The food we consume is broken down by enzymes, its nutrients absorbed by our intestines. The molecules we cannot absorb, fiber, either pass through or, as it turns out, become food for gut microbes. 

A recent study published in Cell Host and Microbe investigates mice on a low-fiber, high-fat diet. The gut bacterial population crashed, triggering immune reactions. A similar experiment, published in the same journal, discovers that the effects of a low-fiber diet are wide-ranging: 

Along with changes to the microbiome, both teams also observed rapid changes to the mice themselves. Their intestines got smaller, and its mucus layer thinner. As a result, bacteria wound up much closer to the intestinal wall, and that encroachment triggered an immune reaction.

Continuation of this diet causes chronic inflammation; the mice also got fatter and developed high blood sugar. In both cases, the inclusion of a fiber called inulin dramatically improved their health and gut bacteria population. The researchers, which include Georgia State University’s Andrew T. Gewirtz, realized that fiber serves as an essential food for an entire population of bacteria. 

"One way that fiber benefits health is by giving us, indirectly, another source of food, Dr. Gewirtz said. Once bacteria are done harvesting the energy in dietary fiber, they cast off the fragments as waste. That waste — in the form of short-chain fatty acids — is absorbed by intestinal cells, which use it as fuel," writes Carl Zimmer for The New York Times.

The “peaceful coexistence” of bacteria in the microbial system is disturbed on a low-fiber diet. Famine breaks out. Bacteria dependent upon fiber starve, followed by the bacteria that depend upon them for sustenance. A colony collapse. What follows isn’t a disappearance, but an aggravation. 

"Inflammation can help fight infections, but if it becomes chronic, it can harm our bodies. Among other things, chronic inflammation may interfere with how the body uses the calories in food, storing more of it as fat rather than burning it for energy," writes Zimmer.

Obesity isn’t the only thing fiber fights. It is also believed to help combat or prevent immune disorders. A fiber supplement probably won’t cut it, however, since what our microbiome truly craves is a variety of fiber sources, which, fortunately, can be found in the produce aisle. 

We begin life with a disadvantage regarding fiber. In his book, Catching Fire, British primatologist Richard Wrangham writes that our relatively small colon means we cannot utilize plant fiber nearly as effectively as great apes. Cooked food provides an important means for intaking more fiber (and other nutrients) than raw plants, but thing is, we have to eat those plants. 

A diet filled with processed foods and fiber supplements is not going to cut it. Our microbiome craves what it has evolved to need in order to survive. Without those requirements those bacteria perish, initiating system-wide havoc in our bodies. Sans fiber we’re not honoring the environment that gave birth to us, and that environment is certainly speaking back. 

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Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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