How often have you found yourself saying these words: “I want to lose weight!”? Or maybe you’ve heard friends and family say them. Here are strategies to help.
Traditional Weight Loss Strategies
Typically, if someone needs to lose weight, a certain diet and exercise plan is recommended. The specifics of what you eat, when, vary by the diet plan chosen. Sometimes, the plan is based on calories. Other times, it’s based on the types of foods allowable. In still others, the plan is constructed on, say, a quality balance among proteins, carbs and fats. But, overall, the formula given has this foundation: healthy diet + exercise = weight loss.
And, this works for a reasonable percentage of people, and there are numerous health benefits associated with making healthy food choices and moving your body and stretching/strengthening your muscles. We aren’t trying to suggest otherwise.
Under this traditional weight loss model, when people struggle to lose weight, or if they plateau and can’t break through or if they regain the weight they lost, it is usually assumed they didn’t follow the diet precisely enough or long enough and/or they aren’t exercising enough.
Sometimes, of course, that’s true. But, is it always? Or is something else going on?
Could Gut Health Play a Role? Answers are Changing!
Ten years ago, a Harvard Medical School publication notes, experts might have thought it was a crazy idea to think that gut bacteria challenges were preventing people from losing weight. Although medical experts have known about intestinal bacteria for about 100 years or so, they had “thought that they were just mooching off of us, taking advantage of the warmth and nutrients in our gut.”
Today, though? The article shares how this notion, the one stating that gut health plays a crucial role in weight management, “could well be right.”
Scientific breakthroughs have allowed scientists to count gut bacteria and analyze them, giving them a much deeper look at them than ever before. And, what they’ve found has been pretty surprising. It would be natural to assume, for example, that gut bacteria aren’t very complex, perhaps only being single-celled creatures whose goal is simply to survive. Well, that notion has been blown out of the water. Ready for more specifics?
Gut bacteria has “250 to 800 times more genes than we have human genes.” It’s hard to imagine, perhaps, that something that’s tiny and invisible could be that complex. But, it’s true. And these complex lifeforms are quite busy, making substances that get into our bloodstreams and affect our body chemistry in ways that are quite complicated to dissect and comprehend. And, because this process affects the chemistry of the body, it is now “entirely plausible that the bacteria in our gut could be affecting our health.”
Long story short: just a decade ago, scientists scoffed at how gut bacteria could affect health, for good or bad. Now, even a prestigious Harvard expert says it’s “entirely plausible” that gut bacteria has a profound impact on our health.
Gut Bacteria and Weight
Now that scientists and researchers are accepting how gut bacteria can significantly impact our health, the next question is, “How? In what ways?”
In the rest of this article, we’ll focus on one aspect: our ability to lose weight. Studies have already shown a connection between gut bacteria and weight; and, to demonstrate, first think about the eating process. You select which foods to eat, and then you chew and swallow that food. It travels down your esophagus, and reaches your stomach. (You can follow an excellent diagram here.)
When chewed-up food particles reach your gut (no, the word “gut” isn’t scientific, but it’s clearly understood, which is our goal!), bacteria helps to break the particles down even further. The smallest pieces get absorbed into our blood while the rest becomes body waste. Through that process, some food (and the associated calories) get into our body, and those calories give us the energy to live and move, but they also have the potential to cause us to gain weight. At a high level, this means that having more of the types of bacteria that efficiently chop food into miniscule pieces in our guts can lead to weight gain as more of the calories get into our bodies.
Let’s hear what another expert has to say: Dr. Mark Hyman.
Dr. Hyman agrees that gut imbalances can have a profound impact on metabolism and weight, reiterating that some bacteria lead to weight gain (those that extract more energy from food) while others can lead to weight loss (those that that extract less energy). Taking gut bacteria from a thin mouse, for example, and putting that bacteria into a heavy mouse can cause the heavier mouse to lose weight, even if it doesn’t change food intake.
He also brings up another point: how bacterial imbalances can lead to a syndrome known as leaky gut. The process? The bacteria triggers inflammation, which is also a trigger for insulin resistance and then diabetes. To help prevent that from happening, it’s crucial to eat a healthy diet that consists of fiber-rich whole foods that are not processed or refined. Cut out sugar and refined carbs, and make plant-based foods (fruits and vegetables) the core of your diet. Make sure the fats you consume are good fats, such as omega-3s. Fermented foods can also help.
But, again, is following a prescribed diet enough? Or, again, is something else at play?
Here is a look at two different studies, each of which examine certain kinds of bacteria and the role they play in weight loss or gain.
Cornell Gut Bacteria Study
A study published in the journal, Cell, takes a closer look at a type of gut bacteria called Christensenellaceae, with this story covered by Fitness Magazine. This newly-discovered bacteria has been detected in 96 percent of people studied, with the amount available in a person’s body partially dictated by genetics. The more you have, the more likely you will be slim; the opposite is also true: if you have less of the bacteria, you’re more likely to become obese. The good news is that researchers believe it may be possible for you to increase the amount of this gut bacteria, although more research needs done to determine precisely what those actions are.
Overall, lean people have more gut bacteria. Seventy percent more, in fact. Thinner people tend to also have a more diverse set of bacteria, also known as microbiota. People in the United States tend to have less diversity in gut microbes, overall, than people in lesser developed countries, and studying why this is so will help to guide researchers in the future tackle the growing problem of obesity in our country.
The article also takes a look at Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that plays a role in both ulcers and cancer of the stomach. The use of antibiotics has cut back the number of infections related to this bacteria, which is good, but the use of antibiotics may have a negative impact on weight control. Why? Because that bacteria contributes to keeping the hunger hormone ghrelin under control. Less Helicobacter pylori? More ghrelin and, therefore, more hunger, which leads to more food intake and, subsequently, more weight gain.
And, if you’re thinking, “Well, I don’t take antibiotics,” think again. Perhaps your doctor doesn’t prescribe them or, if he or she does, you reject taking them. But, that doesn’t solve the issue, not entirely. These drugs are widely used to protect the health of livestock, so, if you eat meat, you will likely be ingesting antibiotics. Some experts believe this is disrupting our microbe balance, which (you know where we’re going with this, right?) leads to obesity. Corroborating evidence includes that, right about when livestock began being fed increasing amounts of antibiotics, the obesity epidemic went into full effect in the United States. It’s probably not a coincidence, either, that the countries with these types of animal feeding procedures also have the greatest amounts of and challenges with obesity.
We encourage you to read the entire Fitness Magazine article, and here are two more highlights. One, it can help to eat probiotic foods, which include yogurt, sauerkraut, miso and kefir, with yogurt being the “probiotic rock star.” The best choice: plain Greek yogurt, with a mixture of your favorite berries added for both flavor and fiber. Kimchi is another fermented food, and here is a recipe by WomensHealthMag.com, one that has been passed down through the generations in Korea.
Also, exercise can help, perhaps because “Your bacteria might benefit from a good workout as much as you do.” People who exercise had higher levels of Akkermansiaceae, according to one study, which is linked to less obesity. Exercisers tend to have more diverse microbes, as well, another plus for weight management.
Danish Study of Gut Bacteria
In 2017, a Danish study published in the International Journal of Obesity concluded that gut bacteria “may be responsible for how much weight we are able to lose, and under what circumstances. General dietary guidelines targeting whole populations may therefore be less effective than previously believed.”
In this particular study, 31 participants followed the Danish national dietary guidelines that focus on people eating fruit and vegetables, plus fiber and whole grains. This plan is designed to help people lose extra pounds and reach and maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI). Twenty-three study participants, meanwhile, ate a more typical diet, which included more meat, along with processed foods. In general, the people on the healthier diet plan lost more weight, as would be expected, with the following observation also made: those who had a higher ratio of certain bacteria (Prevotella-to-Bacteroides) lost more weight on the healthier diet, but people who had a lower ratio did not lose more weight, despite the fact that they followed the healthy diet.
So, only about half of the population, researchers concluded, based on data, would lose weight if they followed the diet that is currently being recommended. The other half could follow the diet, precisely, and not lose weight. This suggests the need for more personalized weight loss recommendations rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, with information gleaned from blood samples and stool samples perhaps guiding those recommendations.
A 2014 article from ScientificAmerica.com is willing to guess-timate percentages, as well, saying that about 35 percent of Americans are obese because of “an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and perhaps some unlucky genes.” As for the rest of us, “researchers have become increasingly convinced that important hidden players literally lurk in human bowels: billions on billions of gut microbes.”
This article confirms what else we’ve been reading, sharing how gut bacteria can alter how we:
- Store fat
- Balance levels of blood glucose
- Respond to hormones that make us feel hungry or full
The wrong mix, researchers reveal, can “set the stage for obesity . . . from the moment of birth [but] Keeping our gut microbes happy could be the elusive secret to weight control.”