Most of us have been told that fiber is an important part of a healthy and balanced diet, and that many people may not consume enough fiber. For decades doctors, governments, and even the food industry, have been advocating for a fiber-rich diet. A fiber-filled diet has been reported to help prevent heart disease, weight gain and some cancers. It may also improve digestive health. Although not all of the claims of fiber’s virtues have been proven, almost everyone agrees that fiber from whole foods is a necessary part of a healthy diet. That’s not surprising, but this is: New research suggests fiber could prevent type 1 diabetes. The research reported in the journal Nature Immunology shows that, in animal trials, a high fiber diet could protect against type 1 diabetes.
Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, working with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, created a diet rich in fiber that is “broken down in the lower intestine into molecules known as short-chain fatty acids.”
The team of scientists, led by immunologist Charles Mackay, studied the health of mice bred to develop type 1 diabetes. Over 70% of the mice that were on a normal diet developed the condition after 30 weeks of monitoring. The other group of mice that were fed the high fiber diet was “nearly entirely protected from the condition,” according to the Guardian.
Short-chain fatty acids called acetate and butyrate, which the body makes when it ferments fiber, were found in the guts of mice, as a result of their high fiber diet. “Feeding mice a combined acetate and butyrate-yielding diet provided complete protection, which suggested that acetate and butyrate might operate through distinct mechanisms,” the study noted. It was observed that acetate in particular could lower the number of immune cells ready to attack the beta cells in a person’s pancreas. Butyrate has been shown to improve gut health and has been studied as a treatment for inflammatory gut diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s. Research has also shown that the gut microbiota of people with type is characterized by, among other things, a “dearth of butyrate-producing bacteria,” (though it’s unclear whether the lack of butyrate is involved in the initiation of the disease process).
Mackay’s study also notes that, “Regardless of the underlying cause of T1D in humans, the application of a large amount of acetate and/or butyrate could be an effective intervention.” He told the Guardian, “There have been frustrations in the past that findings in these animals have not translated particularly well to human patients, but at other times they do… we think our study establishes the concept that we can stop a disease with natural medicinal food.”
Mackay and his team plan to next test the diet in humans. Successful trials could potentially lead to a formula or powder that children could add to their meals, or dissolve in a drink.
Other experts cautioned that this research is at a very early stage and, so far, there is no evidence to suggest that diet causes type 1 diabetes or that type 1 can be prevented.
There is also the concern that linking type 1 diabetes and diet could serve to exacerbate the myth that poor diet and too much sugar cause type 1 diabetes. JDRF UK shared a Behind the Headlines post on its website, which emphasized the point that diet does not cause type 1 diabetes, nor can a change in diet alter the path of type 1 diabetes.
JDRF, who is funding the fiber study, said, “This all sounds promising – if everyone at risk of type 1 could simply take some supplements and never develop the condition, we could be rid of type 1 diabetes forever. But while studies into gut bacteria, and the link to autoimmune conditions is a growing area of research, as ever, we must remain cautiously optimistic.”
“…how the gut behaves in a lab bred strain of very similar mice can only give us a limited view of the way the human gut works in very different people, with different genetic and environmental backgrounds,” the article states.
JDRF concludes that more research needs to be done, particularly in humans and also into better understanding who is at risk of developing type 1 diabetes.