A Bran-New Thing, Called Fibergate

All those bran eaters and fiber crunchers wishing to file a class-action lawsuit against the medical industry, please contact this column immediately -before your next trip to … well, you get the idea.

On April 20, as I gazed upon the headline in The New York Times informing me that the raw broccoli I had eaten with dinner, the All-Bran (not those wimpy Bran Flakes, but All-Bran, as in ALL bran) I had feasted on for breakfast, and the small bran muffin I had stashed away for the lunch hour would not, in fact, protect my colon, I flashed back to a scene in the pre-Tom Hanks D-Day film The Longest Day . The U.S. Army Rangers have climbed a cliff at Pointe du Hoc using rope ladders, they’ve taken terrible casualties, they’ve scattered German defenders, only to discover that the gun emplacements they were ordered to destroy weren’t there. A stunned Ranger looks around at the devastation, the casualties, touches his helmet, bunches up his face and says: “You mean, we did all this … for nothing?” And, yes, the real Rangers really did find empty emplacements on D-Day.

Now, far be it for me to compare my plight, or the plight of other big-time fiber eaters, to that of D-Day’s heroes (my father-in-law was there, on loan to the British Army at Sword Beach, that morning). It must be pointed out, however, that my own bran consumption has, on occasion, caused me to consider carrying along a G.I.-type helmet during long hikes with the kiddies, and not because I feared for the safety of my grey matter.

The Times reported that two studies have concluded high-fiber, low-fat diets are about as effective at warding off the Big C as snake oil, which suggests certain unflattering images of all those doctors who’ve been hawking raw greens, and all those fiber-sellers who’ve been making miraculous claims on their cereal boxes. (“Don’t Get Cancer! Eat Lotsa Bran!”) The Times quoted a medical doctor named Gilbert S. Omenn (Omenn, indeed), who said that it “was totally comfortable to believe that low-fat, high-fiber diets would be beneficial.” (Comfortable for whom, doc?) However: “Well, here we are,” he said. “There’s not a shred of evidence from these trials.”

Not a shred? Not a single shard of shredded wheat? Nothing? You mean, we’ve been eating this stuff … for nothing?

I made the switch from meat and potatoes to meat, potatoes and five servings of fiber about a decade ago, after licensed medical practitioners in newspapers, in magazines and on television persuaded me that my mealstyle put me at risk of various diseases, colon cancer among them. I congratulated myself when a responsible government official attached to the Surgeon General’s office officially recommended a five-servings-daily diet of fruit and vegetables, and, I remember him adding, “Nine, if you can stand it.”

Suckers!

Now Dr. Barnett Kramer, who’s with the National Cancer Institute, tells us something that one would have assumed was part of the average medical researcher’s credo. He spoke of the “need to rigorously put belief systems to the test when you are making recommendations to literally hundreds of millions of people.” Well, it sure would help.

Will Fibergate do for the medical community’s credibility what Watergate and other Variousgates did for the government’s? It’s entirely possible. It was one thing to lay it on thick about cholesterol, only to discover that, well, there’s good cholesterol, too; and it was one thing to recommend margarine over butter, only to discover that butter may actually be better for you than margarine; and it was one thing recommend milk for stomach ulcers, only to discover that milk actually was bad for stomach ulcers.

But the correlation between high fiber and low colon cancer seemed scrawled in stone. To go back on two decades’ worth of stern recommendations would seem like more than a minor setback for the health-care community’s credibility. If they’re wrong about fiber and colon cancer, if they didn’t test rigorously before preaching to the unconverted, well, what else have we been swallowing that hasn’t been tested rigorously? (Tobacco addicts, fill in self-justification here.)

No doubt somebody is about to point out that while my fiber eating may not have helped in the cause to be colon-cancer-free, surely all those yummy vitamins have made me thinner, taller, smarter, wittier and overall a good deal healthier than I was in my meat-and-potato days.

To which the only response can be: Oh, yeah? Says who?

In the meantime, in this era of financial turmoil, may I suggest a close look at the opportunities presented by Krispy Kreme, whose I.P.O. a few weeks ago could not have been better timed.

Perhaps Fibergate runs even deeper than I first suspected.

A Bran-New Thing, Called Fibergate