My granny began having belly pain late one evening. Not wanting to make a big fuss, she decided to tough it out like a farmers wife usually does. By morning she couldnt take it anymore, and she drove herself to the tiny hospital near her rural home and presented to the emergency department for help.
After an injection of pain medicine and a CT scan, the diagnosis was made. Granny had diverticular disease, and one of the diverticula, or little pouches forming outward from her colon wall, had become clogged up, blocked off, and infected. The infected pouch had then ruptured, and pus and stool had formed an abscess in her abdomen. That required a surgery, not a very pleasant one, in which the abscess and part of her colon were removed. In the process, a colostomy was formed. That means her colon then emptied into a bag on her abdomen rather than out through the rectum.
Diverticular disease is now so common in Western populations that some do not consider it pathological – as if its not really a disease at all. Those people think its normal to form diverticula as we age, but in rural Africa and Asia less than 1% of people have them. Contrast that to 50% of men and women in the States in their seventies and eighties.
The difference is in the diet, not genetics. A prospective study just published out of the UK backs up what weve previously seen in epidemiological studies. Vegetarians and people who eat more fiber are much less likely to develop diverticula – and thus to have the subsequent devastating complications like my sweet omnivorous Granny.
The authors took a look at 47,033 men and women living in England and Scotland, a third of which were vegetarian. After following these people for almost 12 years, it was apparent that vegetarians were 31% less likely than meat eaters to need hospitalization or to die because of problems with diverticula.
Those who reported eating any meat including fish were more likely to suffer from serious complications of diverticular disease than those who reported eating none. In an analysis that separated vegans from vegetarians, there was an even lower risk among the vegans compared with meat eaters. There were only four vegans in the study though, so Im not sure how much you can really say about the benefits of veganism over vegetarianism.
Fiber in the diet is important in preventing diverticular disease, and those people in the UK study consuming at least the recommended 26 grams of fiber per day had a 41% lower risk of developing diverticular disease compared with those who ate less than 14 grams per day. After mutual adjustment, both a vegetarian diet and a higher intake of fiber were significantly associated with a lower risk of diverticular disease.
A physician friend of mine once commented that even she couldnt manage to get 26 grams of fiber in her diet every day. My response? Go veggie! When youre not filling up on meat (which likely has its own negative effects on the colon) you have lots more room for whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. One cup of oats every morning mixed with an apple, a banana, and some raisins (a favorite raw breakfast of mine!) provides 25 grams of fiber right there in one delicious, nutritious, appetite suppressing meal. Most of that fiber (17 grams) comes from the cup of oats, and you can mix it with any fruit of your choosing for variety each morning. Remember, in the UK study, those eating more than 26 grams of fiber every day had a 41% lower risk of hospitalization or death from diverticular disease than those eating much less.
If you dont like oats or cant take the thought of having them every single morning, be reassured that a healthy vegetarian meal for dinner can provide all the fiber you need. Eating one and a half cups of cooked brown rice with one and a half cups of cooked lentils provides a whopping 30 grams of fiber in the diet. Dont like lentils? A cup and a half of black beans, mung beans, or pinto beans with the rice instead provides 27 grams of fiber.
My advice? Listen to the Yoga gurus from centuries passed. Lay off the flesh eating and enjoy whole grains, legumes, fruits and veggies for healthy living with fewer diseases, including diverticular disease and its ugly complications.
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.