Jesse Emspak, LiveScience Contributor
Published: 04/30/2014 02:25 PM EDT on LiveScience
Nutritionists have long known that eating more fiber is a good idea. It helps digestion, and evidence suggests it curbs appetite.
Now, new research on animals suggests that one reason fiber makes you less hungry is because after you eat it, your body produces a chemical called acetate — also found in vinegar — which changes brain cells that control hunger.
In experiments, mice and rats that were fed a high-fiber diet had more acetate in their guts, and those given acetate directly into the colon ate less than animals not given the compound, according to the study. [10 New Ways to Eat Well]
"There's a big body of literature that suggests metabolic activity of [gut bacteria] releases [hunger-suppressing] hormones," said study researcher Gary Frost, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Imperial College, London. "Our paper shows that it's the short-chain fatty acid acetate, produced by biota in the colon."
In mammals – both rodents and humans – fiber is digested by bacteria in the colon, which release various chemicals as they work. Fiber gets broken down into acetate, among other things.
In one set of experiments, the researchers fed a group of mice a diet that was high in a type of fiber called inulin (not to be confused with the hormone insulin), which is found in foods such as bananas and garlic. Another group of mice was fed a diet low in that type of fiber.
After two months, the mice with the high-inulin diet had gained less weight, and an analysis of their colon content showed more acetate compared with the mice on the low-inulin diet.
Other studies suggested that fiber affects hunger by changing hormone levels, but Frost's team noted that their own previous work had found certain kinds of brain cells in the hypothalamus fired more often after high-fiber diets, and the hormones involved in appetite suppression actually suppress this kind of neuronal activity.
So in a second set of experiments, the researchers gave mice and rats acetate intravenously and via the colon. The acetate was tagged with radioactive carbon, so the researchers could track its path through the body with a PET scan.
About 3 percent of the acetate stayed in the bloodstream, and made its way to the brains of the mice, specifically their hypothalamuses, which regulate appetite.
This shows that acetate affects the brain and regulates hunger, the researchers said.
So does this mean drinking vinegar can help you lose weight? Frost noted that to get the same effect as eating fiber, a person would have to drink a lot, because vinegar is digested and much of the acetate in it breaks down. "You'd have to drink enough for it to get to the brain," he said. Drinking so much vinegar would be unhealthy — the chemical is quite acidic.
Frost said he and his team plan to do more research to tease out exactly how big the effect of fiber on hunger is. "With dietary fiber the actual effects are complex, it's one of a number of systems that have effects on appetite, and there are others."