John Harvey Kellogg, the founder of the famous cereal brand ‘Kellogg’s’ had many an accolade to his name. He was a practising physician, gave to charity, was an entrepreneur, and a published author of a number of books and articles. With these achievements under his belt, most people would naturally trust him, and follow the health ideas which he advocates. When he created a healthy fibre fortified cereal which we all know today as Kellogg’s cornflakes, why wouldn’t you think its a healthy way to start the day?
Well, because beneath the respectable exterior of John Harvey Kellogg, there was a bit of a nutter.
Sex & cornflakes
Aside from being a prestigious member of society, John Harvey Kellogg was obsessed with chastity. He placed the blame of sexual desires on constipation because the “impacted stools inside one‘s rectum were stimulating the prostate gland and the female vagina into sexual desires” and “he advocated circumcision without aesthetic for boys and mutilation of the clitoris with carbolic acid for girls” to combat sexual desires.
His remedy for what he saw as uncontrollable, unethical, immoral and down right wrong sexual feelings was a strict vegetarian diet, with one to three ounces of bran daily and paraffin oil with every meal1. Oddly enough it did work at suppressing sexual desires but not because it prevented constipation. A reduced libido is a common sign of protein deficiency, and can even lead to erectile dysfunction and infertility. It is in fact for this very reason that monks and other groups which practice abstinence eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.
All this fibre that Dr Kellogg was recommending caused stools to be very big. Too big, which were quite painful and difficult to pass. The paraffin oil was needed in this diet to act as a lubricant to ease the passage of the stool. The paraffin oil itself has a number of other problems, both nutritionally (leeching fat soluble vitamins out of the body) and socially (can cause constant anal leakage), which undoubtedly also further inhibited sexual desires and opportunity.
Oddly enough, fibre isn’t necessarily the best way to prevent constipation and high energy/ high fat meals have been shown to increase the motility in the digestive system2.
Although no one is recommending a high fibre diet with paraffin oil today, his legacy still exists in the fibre fortified cornflakes which populate the cereal isle in most supermarkets. The cereal which was born from the intention to reduce your libido, has no nutritional benefit, and can contribute to nutrient deficiencies.
Is fibre bad for you?
Far from it, but as with so many other things, fibre is only healthy in moderation. Fibre is beneficial for a number of reasons. It acts as a prebiotic, it produces beneficial short chain triglycerides in the digestive system, it is needed to form a stool, it prevents re-absorption of cholesterol and helps with digestion. All essential for a healthy body.
However, eat to much and you can expect to experience very hard and painful stools, poor nutrient absorption, constipation and even bleeding in the digestive system or anus.
So how much fibre is healthy?
Counting the grams of fibre in your food is not something that needs to be done, and that goes for all nutrients (unless you have the time, patience and enjoy it). Its more about the source of the fibre. Natural sources in natural quantities will be the right amount of fibre for you (unless you have specific dietary/ health requirements).
For example, the fibre you find in a big salad will be great for you, whereas eating lots of fibre fortified foods (like most breakfast cereal) , grains and taking fibre supplements will probably bung you up. Plants such as fruits and vegetables are known to be very healthy, and part of this reason is their fibre content. If you are eating fruits and vegetables regularly, and in reasonable quantities, chances are you are getting a healthy amount of fibre, and have very little to worry about.
2. Schmidt, G. Thews; Human Physiology, 2nd edition. 29.7:730
Image courtesy of Justin Pinkney