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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - People who eat a lot of fiber every day may be less likely to die prematurely from a range of illnesses -- including heart disease, cancer and infection, according to a U.S. study.
The benefits of fiber in weight loss, lowering cholesterol and protecting against heart disease have been well established by previous studies, but researchers said the finding that it might also help prevent other common killers was new.
"The results from this study suggest that fiber may have broader health benefits than what has been found before," said Frank Hu, who studies nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and wrote an editorial accompanying the study, which appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"The bottom line is that fiber should be a staple in our diet, and we should strive to eat as much fiber as possible," Hu told Reuters Health, though he added that some of the benefits found in the current study need to be examined further.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that adult women should eat about 25 grams (0.9 oz) of fiber each day and men about 38 grams. A half cup of boiled lentils contains about 8 grams of fiber, while a half cup of raw almonds has nearly 9 grams.
For the study, 400,000 members of the American Association of Retired People (AARP) were tracked by Yikyung Park of the National Cancer Institute and her colleagues.
In 1995 and 1996, when they were between 51 and 71 years old, the participants filled out a survey about eating habits, with additional information gathered about their physical activity levels, weight and smoking status.
Using national databases of death and causes of death, the team was able to determine which of the original study participants died, and from what causes, over an average follow-up period of nine years.
Comparing people in the lowest quartile -- men who ate 13 grams and women who ate 11 grams a day -- with those in the highest, where men consumed an average of 29 grams and women 26 grams, the researchers found that people who ate the most fiber were 22 percent less likely to have died of any cause during the study than people who ate the least.
That pattern remained when the results were broken down by cause of death.
"Fiber intake also lowered the risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases by 24 to 56 percent in men and by 34 to 59 percent in women," the authors wrote.
For men only, eating more fiber was also linked to a lower risk of cancer mortality.
Overall, fiber had a greater protective effect when it came from grains rather than fruits, vegetables or beans, perhaps because whole grains contain vitamins and minerals that have been shown to prevent disease, Hu said.
But the study did not prove that fiber directly prevents premature death, the researchers said, noting that they had to trust that participants had accurately described their diets and that further study is needed.
Also, while the researchers factored in things such as exercise and body weight, "people who eat high-fiber (diets) in general tend to have a healthier lifestyle," Park said.