Vegetarians may be on to something when it comes to keeping the digestive tract healthy. Not only does adhering to diets high in fiber promote bowel regularity, but many vegetarians see other health benefits as well -- maintaining a normal weight, good blood pressure and heart health, to name a few.
Now a study out of Britain theorizes that vegetarians have a reduced risk of developing diverticular disease. The disease is usually described as small pouches in the colon that bulge outward through weak spots, and the condition doesn’t necessarily cause discomfort.
But when the pouches, or diverticula, become infected or inflamed, that’s diverticulitis, which can be quite painful and can progress to bleeding, tears, infections, blockages and other serious problems.
The recent Oxford University study, which was published online by the British Medical Journal on July 19, 2011, included data from 47,033 men and women living in England and Scotland, 33 percent of whom reported themselves as being vegetarians. The researchers had measured their dietary fiber intake, then looked at records of hospital admissions and deaths from diverticular disease.
The study lasted more than a decade, and came up with 812 cases of diverticular disease (806 hospital admissions and six deaths). When researchers evaluated the numbers, vegetarians had a 31 percent lower risk of diverticular disease compared with meat eaters.
It should be noted that study participants who were diagnosed with diverticular disease were between the ages of 50 and 70, which is when it is typically caught by doctors.
As for dietary fiber intake, the study found that the segment of participants getting 25 to 26 grams of fiber a day were at a 41 percent lower risk for diverticular disease than the segment getting 14 grams a day.
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse says that a low-fiber diet increases constipation and pressure inside the colon, leading to the formation of diverticula. Its helpful site gives fiber content in grams for several popular cereals, breads, beans, fruits and vegetables.
On a related note, it’s good to know that the American Dietetic Association seems to have no problems with vegetarian diets, as long as their nutritional components are properly planned.
A July, 2009 abstract from the association said, “Features of a vegetarian diet (no red meat, fowl or seafood) that may reduce risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals.” The association reviewed evidence showing vegetarianism’s link to lower blood cholesterol and lower rates of type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
For anyone considering a vegetarian lifestyle, dietitians and other nutrition professionals can help ensure dietary needs are being met.
“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.” British Medical Journal Abstract. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.
“Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association Abstract. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.
“Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diverticulosis/index.aspx
Reviewed October 17, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith