We’re pretty certain that there’s an ever-rising obesity epidemic going on in America right now. We’re just not sure of why.
Researchers have postulated several different theories as to why the bodies of Americans seem to keep getting fatter and fatter as the years go by, from excessive calorie consumption, to less physical activity, to harmful food additives, to inherited fat genes gone awry, etc.
However, with all this focus on how our dietary and activity decisions are affecting the human body, we’ve largely ignored a very important and game-changing factoid – we’re not the only ones occupying the human body. Each one of us shares our body with billions and billions of other tiny creatures, a vast community of micro-organisms that include a wide variety of bacteria, fungi and archaea that thrive inside (and on) the body since the day you were born. And if you really think that you’re the only one calling the shots about what happens to your body, than consider that fact that these micro-organisms outnumber your own human cells 10 to 1 in there. It’s becoming more and more clear that the microscopic activities of these little critters inside your body are just as influential – if not even more influential – as your own, when it comes to determining your body’s ultimate health and well-being.
Your weight, and how your body stores and burns fat, is no exception. Research is showing that, when it comes to your weight, there’s much more to the story here than just the number of carb and protein grams that you’re putting in your mouth. It turns out that our microbiota – these billions of microbes living inside our intestines and beyond – play a pivotal role in determining whether we’re lean or overweight, how our body processes sugar and whether our body stores or burns fat.
How Your Microbiota Micro-Manage Your Weight
While the role that microbiota play in your body weight may seem surprising and is just beginning to get more serious attention in the media, the truth is that this concept has been known and used to drive profits in the cattle industry for over 60 years. Fattening up livestock by altering the balance of cow gut bacteria with regular antibiotic administration is a technique that has been used in the farming industry since the 1950s, and is still widely used today.
However, we are just beginning to understand the many reasons behind why this effect works, and how exactly our inner gut residents influence our outer girth. A recent study published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe believes to have worked out at least one of the mechanisms behind this connection.
Previous research has revealed that, when food is abundant, the speed at which food moves through our digestive systems speeds up, which gives the body less time to extract and absorb calories from that food. On the other hand, when food is scarce, our bodies adapt by slowing digestive speed down, allowing more time for the body to absorb calories. This is a powerful, protective adaptation that has worked very well for humans in the past, allowing us to survive through harsh environmental conditions and times of famine and starvation.
This latest study explored the actual signalling method that tells your body when to speed up because food is abundant or when it’s time to be more frugal and slow digestion down. The scientists discovered that gut bacteria were key players in this decision-making process.
When certain gut bacteria produce chemicals called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), a process is activated that tells the stomach and intestines that food is plentiful, digestive motility is increased and food moves through the digestive system more quickly, allowing less time for calories to be absorbed. Ultimately, this leads to less fat storage in the body. On the other end, when gut production of SCFA is low, digestion speed slows down, more calories are absorbed and weight gain is more likely.
What is it that encourages our gut bacteria to produce more SCFA? When we eat a certain type of complex carbohydrate call prebiotic fiber. And so, it follows that a diet high in foods that contain lots of prebiotic fiber helps to speed up our digestion and lessens the amount of calories our bodies absorb and store as fat. Diets that don’t contain a lot prebiotic fiber foods – the typical Western diet – has the opposite effect, leading to higher calorie absorption and more fat storage.
This has created a strange sort of irony. You could be completely immersed in the modern age of food plenty and be gorging yourself daily on Western cuisine, and yet, your microbiota is still telling your body that it’s slowly starving to death, instructing it to stock up on emergency reserves by storing your calories in ever-expanding fat cells. While the obesity epidemic is likely a multi-faceted problem, a digestion system that is geared to store fat instead of burn it may represent one of the major fundamental issues underlying it.
Lose Weight by Eating Pre-biotic Foods
This research reveals that prebiotic foods are more than just food – they are actually messengers that help instruct the body when to burn calories and when to store them. Eating prebiotic-rich foods can increase SCFA production and reduce the amount of calories that your body absorbs from a meal. Some foods rich in prebiotic fiber include:
Get your microbiota on the weight loss bandwagon along with you by eating more prebiotic foods. Give your gut occupants more of what makes them happy, and they’ll be sure to give you more of what makes you happy in return.