How Does Your (Gut) Garden Grow?


Can it be that poor food choices contribute to obesity, and could nurturing your digestive bacteria be helpful in managing your weight?


For decades, farmers have been using antibiotics to fatten up their livestock; they don’t know exactly how it works, but it does.  Want to build a bigger chicken?  Mix some bacteria-killing drugs into its feed.  Research has suggested that this principle might also apply to humans:  Some scientists speculate that all the antibiotics we’re prescribed, beginning in infancy (American children are, on average, prescribed at least one course of antibiotics per year), may be playing a role, along with our overly processed diet, in the expansion of our waistlines.


The hypothesis is that the onslaught of drugs and nutrient-free food has damaged our microbiota (the array of bacteria that live in our bellies), transforming what should be friendly flora into fat-harvesting ‘frenemies’ that turn our digestive health upside down and make our thighs balloon.  For many who are trying to control their weight, problem digestion is also a big issue.  Healing the microbiome may be the missing piece in most weight-loss theories.  All too often, beneficial microbiota are not fed, not tended to, not nourished with what they need, which is a plant-centric, fiber-rich diet.  They’re getting too many concentrated sweets, and too much unhealthy trans-fat.  They’re getting wiped out by the overuse of antibiotics.  There is a resulting decline in healthy bugs, and opportunistic bugs begin to flourish.  When that happens, there is a shift in intestinal permeability: some scientists have referred to it as the opening of the biological doorway.  You want nutrients to get through the gut wall to the bloodstream, but you don’t want unfriendly organisms, pathogens, or big protein molecules to leak through.  When this happens, these things cross-talk with your immune system and set up low-grade, chronic inflammation and a shift in energy balance.  In some individuals, these bugs become energy harvesters and storers.  Evidence exists that American children are getting so many antibiotics and live in such a hygienic environment that they’re missing the bacteria that keep hunger hormone ghrelin in check.  Lose the hormone and you lose control of your appetite.


What to do?  First, you have to eliminate the ‘micromenaces’: foods with high carbohydrate density.  The example of a rice cake suits: it seems so virtuous, but its carb density is actually very high because there is nothing to it; it’s all carbohydrate.  In contrast, foods that are often not allowed on ‘low-carb’ diets, like fruit and sweet potatoes, contain a lot of fiber and water along with the carbohydrates, so their carb density is lower.  Cut out man-made concentrated sweeteners, of course (like high-fructose corn syrup) and unhealthy fat (partially hydrogenated oils or trans-fats), and the mass produced vegetable oils.  And then there are specific potential gut irritants: gluten, lactose, and the additives and chemicals in processed foods that might be playing a role.  Once you’re feeling better, you can experiment with adding foods back in.  Don’t permanently eliminate a food until you’ve tested it three separate times.  Otherwise, people can whittle their diets down to nothing, which of course if also problematic.


Increase the amounts of prebiotic foods you eat, like the good, starchy vegetables and legumes, ancient grains and lots of herbs and spices, lots of vegetables and fruits.  Add in fermented foods like Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, and raw apple-cider vinegar.  The key element is diversity.  Try to eat seasonally, because that forces you to mix it up.  If you’re using a probiotic supplement, change it up a bit.  Try different brands and strains to mix it up, alternating the organisms.  The research about probiotic therapy is not at a place where we can make definitive recommendations about which supplements are best.


Aside from weight gain, diabetes and heart disease are also affected.   And so are autoimmune-mediated conditions: multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and others, because so much of our immune system resides in the gut.  With the brain connection microbiota have, improving the gut can help maintain cognition and increase the neuroplasticity and resilience of our brains.  While this is unchartered territory, it is certainly worth further discussion and investigation.


While anyone who eats a truly healthy, well-balanced diet can lose weight, knowing how your food affects your microbiome can be motivating, and that kind of understanding and awareness can really be motivating.  Your microbiome is an ecological community, and all you need to do is nourish it!


From the book: The Swift Diet, by Kathie Madonna Swift