Listen to Your Gut: A Healthy Biome Holds Clues to Better Health

It’s no secret that our diet affects our health, and now new research suggests that it is actually the bacteria-rich biome in our gut that holds clues to just how harmful or helpful some of our food choices may be.

A recent study, published in Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome, confirms what many scientists, nutritionists, and haughty health bloggers have been touting for years: Those who skip the burgers in favor of antioxidant-rich leafy greens enjoy a healthier heart and lower body fat while avoiding inflammation and insulin resistance.

We know that the human gut is home to billions of diverse bacteria. Some of this flora is beneficial to our body, promoting healthy immune and metabolic systems, while other bacteria can cause discomfort or be downright dangerous, signaling inflammation, pre-diabetes, and heart conditions. Our diets are often a determining factor in what kinds of, and in what ratios, bacteria are allowed to flourish.

The Meat and Potatoes of Eating Meat and Potatoes

To investigate just how significant our food choices are on the make-up of our gut bacteria, researchers explored a sample of three common dietary groups:

  • Strict vegetarians: Those who consume no animal products, whatsoever
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians: Those who consume dairy products and/or eggs, more than once per month but no fish or meat
  • Omnivores: Those who consume all animal products (red meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, etc.) more than once per month

Results of the study, analyzed through fecal samples, found that the strict vegetarians had a significantly more favorable gut bacteria composition than their omnivorous counterparts. Specifically, they had less overall bacteria in a colony called Firmicutes, which thrive on sugar and are needed to absorb fats, and more Bacteroidetes, which thrive in a healthy microbiome. At the same time, these vegetarians also enjoy significantly lower frequencies of obesity, high blood pressure, and pre-diabetes, suggesting that the health benefits of their fiber-rich diets are facilitated by the presence of certain beneficial bacteria.

Strict vegetarians had a significantly more favorable gut bacteria composition than their omnivorous counterparts.

The gut biomes of their meat-eating counterparts told a different story. Dieters who consumed any animal products at all had a significantly unfavorable ratio of these two bacteria colonies—greater Firmicutes and lower Bacteroidetes. To confirm, researchers took blood samples, which revealed that omnivores especially had high levels of inflammatory markers in their blood. We know that those eating a typical western diet—high in saturated animal fats and low in fiber-rich veggies—can often suffer from a host of disorders, from insulin resistance to other metabolic diseases, suggesting that consuming animal foods of any kind could set one up for this unfavorable bacterial environment in the gut. Even the lacto-ovo-vegetarians were not spared of this imbalance, as they reported the highest population of Firmicutes among the groups, suggesting that dairy and eggs may be the substrates for these bacteria.

Greens Are the New Black

While the study certainly has its limitations, the significance of our gut bacteria and its implications in determining possible diseases cannot be overstated. While many of us may not be ready to forgo a breakfast plate brimming with eggs and bacon, perhaps we should consider adding more kale and collards to our Sunday morning routines. Our gut will surely thank us for it.

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