Does dietary fibre prevent the recurrence of colorectal adenomas and carcinomas?

We asked

Does nutritional supplement of dietary fibre prevent recurrence of precancerous polyps and cancer in the bowel in participants with a history of polyps having been removed to achieve a polyp-free colon at baseline for the intervention.


Colorectal (bowel) cancer is common worldwide but is especially prevalent in industrialised countries. Genes, diet and lifestyle all seem to be important in the development of bowel cancer. Several communities with low bowel cancer rates have diets that are rich in fibre. Increasing the levels of fibre in the diet in industrialised countries might therefore help to reduce the rate of bowel cancer.

Search Date

The evidence is current to 4 April 2016.

Study characteristics

Seven studies met the inclusion criteria. However, only five studies with 4798 participants provided data for this review. The mean ages of the participants ranged from 56 to 66 years. The participants all had a history of adenomas and would have had at least one procedure to remove them to achieve a polyp-free colon at baseline.The interventions in the included studies were wheat bran fibre, ispaghula husk, or a comprehensive dietary intervention with high fibre whole food sources used alone or in combination. These were compared to low-fibre (2 to 3 g per day), placebo, or a regular diet.

Key results

This review found that increasing fibre in a Western diet for two to eight years did not lower the risk of bowel cancer. Paradoxically, after four years participants receiving dietary fibre had higher rates of bowel cancer compared with the control group, with the absolute increase in risk being one percent.

Quality of evidence

The quality of evidence was low. The high risk of bias of included studies, small sample size, large number of missing data and the use of indirect measures gave us little confidence on the findings of this review.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is a lack of evidence from existing RCTs to suggest that increased dietary fibre intake will reduce the recurrence of adenomatous polyps in those with a history of adenomatous polyps within a two to eight year period. However, these results may be unreliable and should be interpreted cautiously, not only because of the high rate of loss to follow-up, but also because adenomatous polyp is a surrogate outcome for the unobserved true endpoint CRC. Longer-term trials with higher dietary fibre levels are needed to enable confident conclusion.

Read the full abstract...

This is an update of the Cochrane review published in 2002.

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in industrialised countries. Experimental evidence has supported the hypothesis that dietary fibre may protect against the development of CRC, although epidemiologic data have been inconclusive.


To assess the effect of dietary fibre on the recurrence of colorectal adenomatous polyps in people with a known history of adenomatous polyps and on the incidence of CRC compared to placebo. Further, to identify the reported incidence of adverse effects, such as abdominal pain or diarrhoea, that resulted from the fibre intervention.

Search strategy: 

We identified randomised controlled trials (RCTs) from Cochrane Colorectal Cancer's Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE and Embase (search date, 4 April 2016). We also searched and WHO International Trials Registry Platform on October 2016.

Selection criteria: 

We included RCTs or quasi-RCTs. The population were those having a history of adenomatous polyps, but no previous history of CRC, and repeated visualisation of the colon/rectum after at least two-years' follow-up. Dietary fibre was the intervention. The primary outcomes were the number of participants with: 1. at least one adenoma, 2. more than one adenoma, 3. at least one adenoma greater than or equal to 1 cm, or 4. a new diagnosis of CRC. The secondary outcome was the number of adverse events.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two reviewers independently extracted data, assessed trial quality and resolved discrepancies by consensus. We used risk ratios (RR) and risk difference (RD) with 95% confidence intervals (CI) to measure the effect. If statistical significance was reached, we reported the number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) or harmful outcome (NNTH). We combined the study data using the fixed-effect model if it was clinically, methodologically, and statistically reasonable.

Main results: 

We included seven studies, of which five studies with 4798 participants provided data for analyses in this review. The mean ages of the participants ranged from 56 to 66 years. All participants had a history of adenomas, which had been removed to achieve a polyp-free colon at baseline. The interventions were wheat bran fibre, ispaghula husk, or a comprehensive dietary intervention with high fibre whole food sources alone or in combination. The comparators were low-fibre (2 to 3 g per day), placebo, or a regular diet. The combined data showed no statistically significant difference between the intervention and control groups for the number of participants with at least one adenoma (5 RCTs, n = 3641, RR 1.04, 95% CI 0.95 to 1.13, low-quality evidence), more than one adenoma (2 RCTs, n = 2542, RR 1.06, 95% CI 0.94 to 1.20, low-quality evidence), or at least one adenoma 1 cm or greater (4 RCTs, n = 3224, RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.82 to 1.20, low-quality evidence) at three to four years. The results on the number of participants diagnosed with colorectal cancer favoured the control group over the dietary fibre group (2 RCTS, n = 2794, RR 2.70, 95% CI 1.07 to 6.85, low-quality evidence). After 8 years of comprehensive dietary intervention, no statistically significant difference was found in the number of participants with at least one recurrent adenoma (1 RCT, n = 1905, RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.78 to 1.20), or with more than one adenoma (1 RCT, n = 1905, RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.64 to 1.24). More participants given ispaghula husk group had at least one recurrent adenoma than the control group (1 RCT, n = 376, RR 1.45, 95% CI 1.01 to 2.08). Other analyses by types of fibre intervention were not statistically significant. The overall dropout rate was over 16% in these trials with no reasons given for these losses. Sensitivity analysis incorporating these missing data shows that none of the results can be considered as robust; when the large numbers of participants lost to follow-up were assumed to have had an event or not, the results changed sufficiently to alter the conclusions that we would draw. Therefore, the reliability of the findings may have been compromised by these missing data (attrition bias) and should be interpreted with caution.