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Our bodies are awash with bacteria—around 100 trillion of them. They’re on our skin and in our mouths, but the vast majority are in our guts, where they’re collectively known as the microbiota. As well as enabling us to digest food, they manufacture vital B vitamins and brain chemicals such as serotonin, which maintain mood and interact with our immune and nervous systems. Together, they make up a complex and delicate ecosystem that seems to be crucial to good health and maintaining a healthy weight. So crucial, in fact, that the digestive system is now being dubbed The Second Brain.
We know that there are a number of genes that influence appetite and weight. And while microbes can’t alter our genes, they can modify their activity—switching them on or off, up or down. These microbes are, in turn, affected by what you eat. It’s now thought that the mix and diversity of our individual microbes may affect how hungry we are, how we store fat, the percentage of calories extracted from different foods and our sensitivity to insulin. This may explain why two people can eat the same number of calories and expend the same energy yet not gain the same amount of weight.
Groundbreaking experiments have shown that obese and slim mice have very different populations of gut bacteria, and crucially, that the bacteria seem to cause the obesity rather than the other way around. When bacteria from obese mice were implanted into the guts of slim mice, they gained weight despite eating less. Other research on identical human twins—one obese, the other slim—found that the leaner twins had far greater diversity in their gut microbes—and more beneficial microbe species than those twins who were obese.
It’s still the early days and we certainly can’t say what the ideal gut looks like. There is no one-size-fits-all—everyone’s gut is as individual as his or her fingerprint, with its own unique mix of bacteria. However, what is becoming abundantly clear is that the key to a healthy body and a healthy weight lies in both the diversity and the numbers of microbes in the gut—and the way to build variety and numbers is through diet. “Think of your microbial community as your garden,” says Professor Tim Spector, author of The Diet Myth. “You need to make sure the soil (your intestines) that the plants (your microbes) grow in is healthy, containing plenty of nutrients. To stop weeds or poisonous plants (toxic or disease microbes) taking over, you need to cultivate the widest variety of plants and seeds possible.”
In other words, the ideal diet is varied and highly nutritious—yet modern Western diets are packed with processed foods, sugar, and refined carbs, and low in fiber and nutrients. And it’s not just a junk-food diet that takes its toll. A course of antibiotics can wipe out beneficial gut bacteria, and farmed fish, meat, and dairy products often contain antibiotic residues that can also damage gut bacteria.
The good news is that changing your diet can boost the number and diversity of beneficial gut bacteria, and the changes start to happen within days. With the help of Professor Spector, we’ve designed a simple four-week plan to give your gut a complete makeover.
Thought the only role of our digestive systems was, well, digestion? The truth is that the trillions of microbes living in our guts can affect everything from mood to immunity, and even weight loss. Get the balance right and the health benefits can be amazing.
Eating a varied diet can improve your gut bacteria—and your overall health.