Can your gut flora, aided by pro­bi­otics, help you lose weight?

Fairlady - - CONTENTS -

Fer­mented food is sud­denly trendy again; just walk through the aisles of any health shop and you’ll see items like kom­bucha and miso on the shelves. Top lo­cal restau­rants have dishes like kim­chi (pick­led veg­eta­bles) on their menus, and with the help of sites such as Fer­ment­ing for Food­ies (www. fer­ment­ing­for­food­ you can learn how to make your own.

These are all clear signs that the hu­man gut mi­cro­biome – the ecosys­tem of micro­organ­isms such as bac­te­ria in your in­testi­nal tract – is now gar­ner­ing main­stream in­ter­est. The gut mi­cro­biome holds the se­cret to weight loss, health, en­ergy and joie de vivre, writes Raphael Kell­man in his book The Mi­cro­biome Diet: The Sci­en­tif­i­cally Proven Way to Res­tore Your Gut Health and Achieve Per­ma­nent Weight Loss.

Bri­tish life­style site Byrdie ( even rates the so-called ‘gut diet’ as one of the best ways to lose weight.

Seems easy enough, right? So all you have to do is eat a va­ri­ety of veg­gies, fruits, whole­grains, seeds, nuts and fer­mented foods – the kinds of food that make your good bac­te­ria flour­ish? That’s a good start, sure.

Un­for­tu­nately, the se­cret to los­ing weight isn’t that sim­ple.

The Ger­mans love their sauer­kraut, the Rus­sians eat borscht and the Kore­ans have kim­chi with nearly ev­ery meal.


Sadly, our bod­ies aren’t as self­sus­tain­ing as we once thought. They are like a com­plex ecosys­tem with tril­lions of bac­te­ria and other micro­organ­isms, liv­ing mostly in our in­testines. Over the past few decades, re­search on the far-reach­ing in­flu­ence of the mi­cro­biome has be­come a hot topic.

More and more re­search shows that this mi­cro-pop­u­la­tion can also af­fect your me­tab­o­lism – and thus your weight. This has led sci­en­tists to ask: is the cur­rent obe­sity cri­sis linked to the mi­cro­biome? There is a grow­ing body of proof that in­di­cates that our gut flora is be­ing neg­a­tively af­fected by the trap­pings of mod­ern life, specif­i­cally the overuse of an­tibi­otics and our sugar in­take.

Re­searchers are look­ing into the spe­cific ways that a skinny per­son’s in­testi­nal tract dif­fers from that of an over­weight per­son’s, and there are def­i­nite in­di­ca­tions that some types of gut flora play a cru­cial role, in­flu­enc­ing both me­tab­o­lism and ap­petite.

We know that our bod­ies need a healthy bal­ance of good bac­te­ria and bad bac­te­ria to be in per­fect health. Now, we’ve also learnt that the ‘good’ bac­te­ria have to be bal­anced.

This is how Paarl-based di­eti­cian Mariza van Zyl, au­thor of Dik vir Dieet, sums it up: an ex­cess of ‘bad’ bac­te­ria causes dis­eases. But the bal­ance be­tween the dif­fer­ent ‘good’ types can also be dis­turbed, be­cause each of them has a dif­fer­ent job. Va­ri­ety is the key­word here. An ecosys­tem such as a game re­serve has to have dif­fer­ent types of wildlife: too many li­ons and they’ll eat all the other an­i­mals. The same goes for the ecosys­tem in your in­testi­nal tract, or your gut flora.

So here’s the prob­lem: re­search shows that peo­ple in the West­ern world, where obe­sity is rife, have a less di­verse ecosys­tem than peo­ple liv­ing in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.


What we want much more of is a fam­ily of bac­te­ria with a dif­fi­cult-to-pro­nounce name: Chris­tensenel­laceae. An abun­dance of it has been linked to slim­ness – and vice versa. But it is not the only bac­terium that can af­fect the size of your jeans.

You need to strive to­wards hav­ing a wide va­ri­ety, says Dr Jef­frey Gor­don of the Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity School of Medicine, who was one of the first ex­perts to dis­cover a link be­tween obe­sity and gut bac­te­ria. A slim per­son’s gut flora is about 70% more di­verse than an over­weight per­son’s.

‘Ev­ery study we do shows that there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween the mi­cro­biome of slim and over­weight peo­ple, says Dr Tim Spec­tor, au­thor of The Diet Myth: Why the Se­cret to Health and Weight Loss is Al­ready in Your Gut. He was the lead re­searcher of a team that in­ves­ti­gated the gut flora of iden­ti­cal twins who dif­fered in weight. By just look­ing at the gut mi­crobes, they could ac­cu­rately pre­dict which twin was over­weight.

Be­sides their gut mi­cro­biomes be­ing more di­verse, the skin­nier twins also had a greater abun­dance of Chris­tensenel­laceae.

Your gut pop­u­la­tion can also play a role in hunger. One bac­terium, named Heli­cobac­ter py­lori, ap­pears to be key. It is the bac­terium found in cases of stom­ach ul­cers and stom­ach can­cer – an­tibi­otics have helped to halve H. py­lori in­fec­tions, which is good news if you have a stom­ach ul­cer, but not so great for your waist­line. H. py­lori ac­tu­ally has a pro­tec­tive ef­fect on your whole body, as long as it doesn’t grow wildly and get out of con­trol, says Mariza.

The bac­terium seems to lessen the body’s pro­duc­tion of ghre­lin, aka the hunger hor­mone. If you wake up hun­gry in the morn­ing, it’s be­cause ghre­lin is telling you that you need to eat, ac­cord­ing to Dr Martin Blaser, au­thor of Miss­ing Mi­crobes: How the Overuse of An­tibi­otics is Fu­el­ing Our Mod­ern Plagues. When you eat break­fast, your ghre­lin lev­els are low­ered. But if have no H. py­lori in your sys­tem, this doesn’t hap­pen – so you eat more.


Where does this in­for­ma­tion leave you? Some of your gut mi­crobes may be de­ter­mined by your genes, but life­style and diet also play sig­nif­i­cant roles. For in­stance, if your diet con­sists mainly of meat and dairy, Bilophila wadswor­thia

(a bac­terium linked to col­i­tis, or in­flam­ma­tion of the colon) will flour­ish. If you eat mainly plant­based foods, it will di­min­ish.

Mariza says the num­ber of bac­te­ria in your di­ges­tive sys­tem and how well they’re bal­anced are de­ter­mined by many fac­tors. Pass­ing through the birth canal has a good ef­fect on your di­ges­tive sys­tem, so it’s a plus if you were de­liv­ered nat­u­rally, and if you were breast-fed. If, on the other hand, you reg­u­larly take an­tibi­otics or con­tin­u­ally dis­in­fect your hands, it can have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on your gut flora. Their num­bers, strains and whether they help you out or trip you up are also in­flu­enced by the lack or pres­ence of cer­tain nu­tri­ents, such as vi­ta­min A, as well as things you do or don’t do.

‘We go out of our way to save the rhi­nos and the whales,’ says Dr Fran­cois Retief, a gas­troen­terol­o­gist from Mos­sel Bay. ‘But we are com­pletely obliv­i­ous to the ecosys­tem in­side our bod­ies and how our life­style af­fects it. You need to lis­ten to your body: eat when you are hun­gry, sleep when you are tired and drink wa­ter when you are thirsty.’


If pro­bi­otics (like fer­mented foods) are the ‘seeds’, pre­bi­otics (like fi­bre) are the ‘fer­tilis­ers’ in your mi­cro­bi­otic ‘gar­den’.


Fer­mented foods are good sources of pro­bi­otics, and eat­ing them is the best way to re­plen­ish the good bac­te­ria in your gut. Which is why it is an in­te­gral part of nearly ev­ery cul­ture’s tra­di­tional cui­sine. In Ja­pan and China, fer­mented soya prod­ucts such as miso, soya sauce and tem­peh are part of the daily diet. The Ger­mans love their sauer­kraut, the Rus­sians eat borscht and the Kore­ans have kim­chi with nearly ev­ery meal. Lo­cally, we have amasi, a form of fer­mented milk, and su­ur­pap, which is made with mil­let, maize meal or sorghum.

Pro­bi­otic yo­ghurt is a good source of good bac­te­ria; how­ever, if you tend to stick to the same brand, you might only be in­gest­ing one strain. Your gut, how­ever, is host to many dif­fer­ent strains.

The same goes for pro­bi­otic sup­ple­ments. You might be get­ting a va­ri­ety of strains in one pill, but it is still not nearly enough. For the best re­sults, vary brands to get the big­gest pos­si­ble va­ri­ety and com­bine this with fer­mented foods.

‘We are com­pletely obliv­i­ous to the ecosys­tem in­side our bod­ies and how our life­style af­fects it. You need to lis­ten to your body.’


• Eat more fi­bre of all kinds: the sol­u­ble kind (oats, beans) and the less sol­u­ble kind (whole­grains, wild and brown rice, veg­etable peels like sweet potato skin) and in­sol­u­ble fi­bre (onions, bananas, root veg­eta­bles). Other good sources are leeks, as­para­gus, gar­lic and ar­ti­chokes. Re­search has shown that these foods feed your mi­crobes and en­sure a greater va­ri­ety.

• Tan­nins in red wine and tea in­hibit the growth of a bad bac­terium called Clostrid­ium.

• The polyphe­nol quercetin, found in onions, has been shown to in­hibit the growth of E. coli.

• Avoid junk food. Your sweet tooth can wreak havoc on your gut flora; it needs com­plex car­bo­hy­drates such as veg­eta­bles, fruits, legumes and whole­grains to flour­ish. If you eat too many sweets and pro­cessed foods, your mi­crobes re­main hun­gry. Also stay away from preser­va­tives.

More tips

• Eat the right fat, says Mariza: - choose cold-pressed plant oils - eat a va­ri­ety of fats – more av­o­cado, nuts and seeds, and less co­conut and but­ter

- eat grass-fed or Ka­roo lamb - eat more oily fish, high in omega-3s, such as sar­dines and an­chovies

- eat a hand­ful of raw nuts

ev­ery day

- avoid foods high in trans-fatty

acids, such as mar­garine

• Vary your menu: The more var­ied your diet, the more di­verse your mi­cro­bial ecosys­tem will be. Stud­ies have shown that slim peo­ple have a densely pop­u­lated and di­verse gut-flora com­mu­nity.

• Get mov­ing: The mi­crobes in your gut that help to sta­bilise blood sugar lev­els mul­ti­ply when you ex­er­cise. Re­search has shown that peo­ple who ex­er­cise reg­u­larly have higher lev­els of Akker­man­si­aceae, a bac­terium that has been linked to lower obe­sity fig­ures.

• The take-home mes­sage here? Eat more fruit, veg and fi­bre. Avoid pro­cessed food. Sleep. Ex­er­cise. And don’t take an­tibi­otics the mo­ment you feel the snif­fles com­ing on! There’s a lot we don’t know, but it’s safe to say a healthy gut is as­so­ci­ated with a healthy diet. And weight loss may just be the cherry on top. The Mi­cro­biome Diet: The Sci­en­tif­i­cally Proven Way to Res­tore Your Gut Health and Achieve Per­ma­nent Weight Loss by Raphael Kell­man (Da Capo Press, 2015) is out now.

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