Getting to the gut of the problem

I’m really trying not to talk about food anymore.

Food, Diet, NOT FOOD, Everyday

Bacteria (and archaea) are your friends. Feed them well.

But I keep being drawn back to it, somehow.

Here are the reasons, I suspect:

1) Exercising more is very simple, and you can find all the advice you can possibly need elsewhere on my blog. So without going into highly specialized training regimen, which I don’t advocate anyway, there are only so many things that can be said about moving everyday. It is simple, but it requires effort. Everyday.

2) Food is fascinating, pleasant, and something we do effortlessly multiple times per day. So fixating on it comes easily. Also, the entire process from the food we eat to the energy we have to spend is so complex that, depending on your intentions, you can fool a lot of people some of the time, or try to enlighten one person at a time, with the same amount of energy.

So, because I’d rather enlighten a single person (I’m that kind of person), and I’ve talked about how to move more aplenty, and because more people want to read about food, let’s talk about food.

Actually, let’s talk about food that feeds the many, on top of feeding the one person who eats it. In so doing, we will get to what some have come to consider the “gut of the problem.”

Let’s talk about the food that feeds the bacteria and archaea that live in our guts.

A summary of recent research published in Scientific American spells it out quite nicely. You should really read it.

To save you time, however, here are the main facts, and what they hint at for optimal health:

  • Fact 1: Our digestive system is home to millions of other living beings. It is an ecosystem for them, and there is an interaction between their living, and our absorption of nutrients from food. It is what we refer to as the “gut microbiome” or “gut microbiota.” Or just “microbes” if you prefer.
  • Fact 2: Who says “ecosystem” also says “food chain,” “competition,” “natural selection,” etc. For instance, there’s a constant battle between “good” and “bad” bacteria; between those that help us (by helping our digestion not causing diseases) and those that can hinder us (by causing inflammation, diseases, etc.).
  • Fact 3: The gut microbiome didn’t just appear out of the blue this week; it has evolved along with us (co-evolved is the term). Different species have different gut microbiota. In each case, the gut microbiota has evolved and adapted to thrive off of what the host species typically eat.

Hint 1: Just like our own body should be fed the kind of food it is capable of handling (i.e. food, not too much, mostly plants), so too the bacteria and archaea that live inside us. Basically, the “good” ones strive on a diet that is precisely the kind of diet we should eat. And when the “good” ones don’t strive, then the “bad” ones do, and that can lead to problems for us.

Hint 2: One aspect of the research focused on fiber. We’ve known that fiber is important, and that we don’t have enough in our modern diet, but it seems a big part of the reason is that, without fiber, those “good” bacteria and archaea don’t fare so well.

Hint 3: Moreover, in the absence of enough fiber in our diet, a part of the gut microbes to the next best thing for them: the mucus that lines the walls of our digestive tract, particularly in the large intestine. But we need that mucus for the digestive system to work correctly and for the protection of the rest of our bodies, so when bacteria and archaea eat it, we get ulcers, inflammation, and a slew of other problems.

The article talks about positive results from adding fiber, even just a little, to the diet. It seems to help.

So, go ahead, add fiber to your diet. But not just any fiber.

Real food contains fiber. NOT FOOD that claims to contain fiber often contains the wrong kind of fiber. What I might call NOT FIBER, were it not for the fact that it is, in fact, fiber. Just not the kind that our gut microbiota can be expected to eat.

So we are back to the food we eat. What are we to do?

The same that we’ve known all along: Lots of veggies and fruit. And stay away from NOT FOOD.

No surprise there. Have we learned anything new today?

Yes, I think we have. Or at least this story serves as a reminder.

Nutrition is more complex than “calories in,” and just a count of carbs, proteins, and lipids. What you eat does not end up directly in your blood stream and then inside your cells. It goes through many steps of processing, natural processing, by our guts and the multitude that live in it.

Our own enzymes and guts mechanically and chemically disassemble the food we eat into its basic constituents (glucids, lipids, amino acids, various micro-nutrients) which can then enter the blood stream. What’s left behind is then further processed by gut microbes, and that can sometimes provide more nutrients for us as well.

By further (and co-processing) food, the gut microbiota play an essential role. They help make the whole machinery run smoothly. Provided they get benefits from it as well. Those benefits come from having a relatively safe place to call home and lots of food.

If we create the wrong kind of home for them, or if we provide food that the rowdy relatives prefer, then the “home” becomes less peaceful, and everybody suffers.

Sure, I’m simplifying by using such an analogy, but it is closer to the truth than a lot of the advice out there. (And much better than a car analogy.) Basically, feed your gut bacteria well, by feeding yourself real food (not too much, and mostly from plants), and you’ll improve your digestion.

So next time someone tries to sell you a super food, supplement, or miracle cure for what they claim ails you (but probably doesn’t), simply grab a veggie or a fruit, and chew on that. Everybody involved will feel better…

*****

See the article “Fiber-Famished Gut Microbes Linked to Poor Health” in Scientific American, March 23, 2015, by Katherine Harmon Courage.

Image from Pixabay.

Not until we also have artificial microbes to help us digest that

Artificial, NOT FOOD, Diet, Science, Fiber, Sweetener

We are not made of plastic, so why would we eat artificial stuff? Think about it.

You might have heard about this.

If you haven’t, then it is high time.

Although I have no tendency towards crying wolf, this is quite scary, and prompts me to want to warn everyone against certain aspect of our modern food supply.

For far too long we have been treating our bodies as if they were simple machines to which we only need to provide fuel (food) and some lubrication (water) to keep it going. What this picture of the human body, what I call the car analogy, fails to recognize is the intricacies, the inter-connectedness if you wish, of the processes that take place inside our bodies. That’s partially why I really hate car analogies; they are too simplistic by far.

Thanks to recent research into the microbiome in our digestive system, the microbes (bacteria and viruses) that live in our guts, this picture is being drastically revised.

So I’d like to draw your attention to two recent items of information that are hinting at greater care to be taken about what we allow into our bodies.

(Hint: Food is a good thing. NOT FOOD, not so much.)

Added Fibre

We’ve all heard that our diet could use more fiber (or fibre, if you are Canadian or British). It seems the entire (developed) world is constipated, by the sound of it. And we are not feeling full soon enough, so we keep eating, to the point of eating too much, which does not help with the constipation part.

Fibre, you see, no matter how you spell it, affects satiety, the feeling of having eaten enough, and facilitates the transit of food through our digestive tract. Eating more of it is a good thing because you feel full faster, and stuff goes through you more smoothly. Or at least comes out more easily. (Enough said. At least there is no car analogy for that.)

So what are we to do about it?

Eating food containing fibre is of course too difficult for most of us. (I’m being facetious. Bear with me.) So we must find easier ways. That’s where the folks who sell us food products come in. (Notice the presence of the word “products” in the previous sentence? That’s also a hint.)

And thus enter added fibres in our diets. Through a lot of products we are sold with added fibre.

What those companies don’t tell you, and what the recent research results seem to demonstrate, is that this added fibre is not of the kind that really makes a positive difference for our bodies. You would think that in order to add fibre in their products, companies would extract them from food sources in the first place. But that’s not the case. It is a lot cheaper to take fibre from non-food sources.

Unfortunately, those additives, I call them artificial fibre in the sense of not being fibre occurring naturally in food, are the wrong size and the wrong type to do the job. Simply put (from the Nutrition Action Newsletter):

“But all these added fibres are really different,” explains (Joanne) Slavin (professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota). “If people think, ‘I’ll get nine grams of fibre in this chocolate bar and I won’t have to worry about getting enough fibre,’ that’s a mistake.” (…)

“Most added fibres don’t affect satiety,” noted Slavin. “If you can sneak added fibre into a food or drink and it doesn’t affect the taste, it’s not likely to have any effect on satiety.”

Basically, added fibre is a marketing gimmick that does nothing good. But as it goes through you, it could do something bad to some of the good bacteria in there, so why risk it? At any rate, don’t waste your money products containing such NOT FOOD.

Artificial Sweeteners

It seems we also have a sweet tooth, for various reasons, the most important of them having to do with evolution and the scarcity of nutrient-rich food sources throughout most of that time.

But too much sugar means too many calories, and the logical consequences of weight gain and increased risks of negative health outcomes like heart disease and diabetes (to mention only those).

Once again, asking us to reduce our consumption of sugar is obviously not the way to go. Especially since it seems sweets are practically addictive.

So what is to be done?

The obvious answer is to find alternatives that are as sweet but that, somehow, do not provide calories.

And thus enter artificial sweeteners into our diet.

In theory, according to all the science artificial sweetening agents’ developers have accumulated, these sweet but otherwise inert additives go through our digestive system without contributing a single calorie.

What they seem to have forgotten, and what new evidence is pointing to, is that as they go through our bodies, artificial sweeteners affect the many living creatures in there. In a nutshell, they modify the equilibrium of our gut microbiome.

This can be bad, as a recent article published in Nature indicated. Why?

Those bacteria and viruses have evolved along with us, and work together with our digestive system. In fact, our digestive system includes the microbiome. But it is also always a bit of a battle between bacteria that help, and bacteria that can hinder our health. When our diet changes, the relative strength of each type of bacteria can be affected. Sometimes in a way that is very detrimental.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s an excerpt from a New Scientist article about the study:

“The most shocking result is that the use of sweeteners aimed at preventing diabetes might actually be contributing to and possibly driving the epidemic that it aims to prevent,” says Eran Elinav at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who co-supervised the work with his colleague Eran Segal.

Segal says most artificial sweeteners pass through the gastrointestinal tract without being digested. This means that when they get to our intestine, they directly encounter our gut bacteria. Because what we eat can shift this bacterial make-up, the researchers wondered whether the glucose intolerance might be caused by a change in the bacterial composition.

A second test, with saccharin, confirmed this. Wiping out the rodents’ gut bacteria using antibiotics abolished all the effects of glucose intolerance in the mice. In other words, no bacteria, no problem regulating glucose levels.

Further experiments supported this conclusion. For example, when the researchers transferred the gut bacteria of mice who had consumed saccharin into mice whose guts were bacteria-free, it caused these previously healthy mice to become glucose intolerant. Similar transplants from mice drinking glucose-enriched water had no negative effects on health.

So what was going on? When the team analysed the gut bacteria present before and after the experiments, they saw an increase in several different types of bacteria in the mice that consumed sweeteners. Segal says these bacteria have already been linked with obesity in humans in previous studies.

The take home message
In the case of added fibre, which I dubbed artificial fibre, we are being duped into eating indigestible stuff that has no real benefit for our health. That’s the very definition of NOT FOOD.

In the case of artificial sweeteners, some of us might in fact negatively affect their health even as they try to prevent weight gain. Far from helping control conditions like pre-diabetes and type-2 diabetes, it may contribute to causing such diseases in some people.

There is only one sure way to not get duped, and to promote health through food: Eat real food, not too much, and mostly from plants. If it has been processed by something else than the bio-mechanical and bio-molecular apparatus of something alive, be very, very cautious.

Understand that we are animals, inhabited by other animals and microbes with which we have co-evolved, and that together we are supposed to eat natural food.

Until we have some artificial gut microbes designed specifically to deal with any artificial stuff we might put in our bodies, we should refrain from eating any.

No need to think particularly long or hard about it. It’s a no-brainer!

You can find a blog post from Scientific American that talks about the research on artificial sweeteners; it has a link to the original article in Nature, in case the one I provided earlier in this post does not work. It is the same research about which the New Scientist article was talking in issue 2987 published on September 17, 2014 (written by Helen Thomson).

For some information on added (artificial) fibre, look into the Nutrition Action Newsletter of October 2014; it is a publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Picture from Pixabay.