Can diet affect the human gut microbiota?

The effect of diet and lifestyle on the gut microbiome is an emerging area of research. Being aware of an individual’s diet can affect the microbes living in the gut microflora and the health of the cells lining the GI tract is important for maintaining a healthy gut.

According to an article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND) (2013), studies have suggested that individuals who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or individuals who are obese have a gut flora that is different from individuals whose digestive function is normal and those who are of a healthy weight. Other studies suggest that type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases may be linked to the specific microbes that are in the human gut. It is known that our gut bacteria and the foods we eat have a symbiotic relationship. We benefit from the bacteria in our gut as they rely on the food we consume to produce energy and to maintain themselves.

Baumler, who is a member of the Research Dietetics Practice Group, states in the article from the JAND (2013), that there are four main ways intestinal microbiota are beneficial to our health. According to Baumler intestinal microbiota help to promote the development of a stronger immune system, secrete antimicrobial substances and act as a physical barrier that works to prevent the colonization of pathogenic bacteria, synthesize essential nutrients including B-12 and vitamin K and harvest energy from the diet and produce short-chain fatty acids that serve as an energy source for liver and colonic cells.

Greater gut diversity is more beneficial compared to a gut without a diverse population of bacteria. Studies have shown that eating fiber helps to create a greater diversity of bacteria in the gut. Research also suggests that through processes in the gut fiber may also affect weight. According to Baumler, a high fiber intake is associated with a higher fecal energy loss, which means that fewer calories are absorbed.

A healthy diet, rich with fiber, is important for promoting a healthy gut. In addition to fiber, probiotics are something to keep in mind when trying to cultivate healthy gut microflora. Cultured dairy products are examples of probiotic rich foods. Foods with live active cultures are beneficial for promoting a healthy gut; however, it’s important to keep in mind that individuals may respond differently to probiotics. For example, probiotics may not help with symptoms of diarrhea or constipation for one consumer but may help another. Lowering stress levels is another way to promote a healthy gut. Diarrhea may be a symptom of stress which could disrupt healthy gut bacteria or if some eat differently when they are stressed this may also impact good bacteria in the gut.

Genomic technology in the past several years have made it possible for researchers to identify gut microbiota and links between certain microbiota and obesity. Research thus far has shown that there is a relationship between our diet, the bacteria in our gut and our health. However, there is still much to learn about this relationship between humans and their gut microbiome.

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Annie McGree is a senior in the Coordinated Program in Dietetics at the University of Idaho.

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