The human diet has changed drastically from what our ancient ancestors ate and much of that change occurred in the 20th century. Changes such as the development of agriculture promoted advancements in human civilizations. However, the advancements over the past 200 years in technological developments also have altered the human diet.
In the United States public health also changed over the past century. We are now able to protect the public from many infectious diseases, even while chronic disease is highly prevalent. Currently, child obesity continues to climb.1, 2 Half of American adults, according to the CDC, have prediabetes or type II diabetes.3 Diabetes and disease related to diet may emerge as the public health hallmark of the 21st century. There are also increases in other chronic, deadly diseases related to diet and lifestyle, including heart disease.
Access to a wide variety and diversity of food with large portion sizes has increased along with the convenience of fast food and home delivery. Food safety has improved tremendously over the past century. Yet, today, chronic diseases are serious public health problems, even in children. Metabolic syndrome, hypertension, certain cancers and sleep apnea are all on the rise.2, 4
What could have changed over the past century that might explain this? Over the past century, intake of fast food, meat, animal products and convenience food increased. Americans have increased greatly their intake of factory-farmed meat, considering it a 'superior' protein source. They eat less and less high-fiber foods such as legumes for protein. Wheat, a staple grain crop for thousands of years, is now stripped of its nutrient-rich germ. Although vitamins were added back through 'enriched flour,' dietary fiber was not. Indeed, unprocessed foods came to be viewed as 'inferior' to processed foods. Wonder Bread emerged. Fiber is an essential nutrient now missing. What is its relationship to chronic disease? Fiber deficiency is a public health hallmark of the 21st century.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, state that dietary FIBER is 'an underconsumed NUTRIENT of PUBLIC HEALTH concern'.5 Fiber is an essential nutrient, much like protein or vitamin C. However, many view fiber as a by-product of food to help prevent constipation - a 'take it or leave it' component of food with no added benefit.
The truth is, ~ 95% of Americans consume less than the minimal recommendations for dietary fiber.6, 7 Meat, dairy products, other animal products and soda provide no dietary fiber. Processed foods, such as white bread or potato chips, have been stripped of most of their fiber. Fiber sources are in the foods people today eat much less of. These foods include legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts, peas), nuts, vegetables, whole grains and fruits.
Low-fiber diets are common-place in the Western World, but there are societies worldwide where people have more fiber in their diets. In comparison, in some areas of Africa, such as Burkina Faso, people still consume a diet similar to the ancient world. The average child in Burkino Faso consumes twice the dietary fiber of children in the West.8 Among adults in Ghana, 43% meet dietary fiber guidelines, but only 3% of U.S. adults do.9 Adults in Ghana also have lower levels of chronic inflammation, obesity and metabolic syndrome.9
There is reason to believe fiber deficiency to be a major risk factor for common chronic diseases.