According to Statistics Canada, an alarming 61 per cent of all adult Canadians are either overweight or obese. In fact, with almost 26% per cent of the Canadian population aged 15 and over considered obese, Canada is among the most overweight countries worldwide.(1)
Those numbers are only expected to rise, so it’s clear that what we’re doing isn’t working. Despite having access to gyms, online workouts and diets of all kinds, we are the sickest, most overweight generation in our history.
We’ve all heard the main causes of excess weight are the wrong diet, a sedentary lifestyle and perhaps some unlucky genes. In recent years, however, researchers have become increasingly convinced that the trillions of microbes which reside in our digestive tracts play a hidden role.
This makes perfect sense when you understand that the health of your gut flora is dependent upon…you guessed it…diet and lifestyle (think eating habits, stress, toxic load, sleep habits, use of certain medicines, and even mindset).
The microbiome does not replace or contradict other long-understood causes of obesity…it is thoroughly entangled with them!
In a nutshell, here’s what John Hopkins University researchers concluded in a meta-analysis of 21 studies, published in March 2018,
“Dietary agents for the modulation of the gut microbiome are essential tools in the treatment of obesity and can lead to significant decreases in BMI, weight and fat mass.” (2A)
Gut microbiota has been found to impact weight in various ways. It is often underscored as playing a major role in the development of insulin resistance and inflammation that is directly associated with excess weight gain.(2)
Scientists are also studying how gut flora regulate genes responsible for energy/caloric expenditure and storage, and their interaction with hormones that make us feel hungry or full.
Here’s a startling finding; transfer of intestinal bacteria from fat mice transforms thin mice into obese ones! (3)
In human studies of twins who were both lean or both obese, it was found that the gut community in lean people was like a rainforest brimming with many species. In contrast, the microbial community in the obese was less diverse, with fewer species. For example, lean individuals tend to have a wider variety of Bacteroidetes, a large tribe of microbes that specialize in breaking down bulky plant starches and fibers into shorter molecules that the body can use as a source of energy.(4)
In keeping with the theory of less microbial diversity as a factor in obesity, Professor Martin Blaser, New York University, has flagged the absence of a particular bacterium, H. pylori, as important. H. pylori has long been vilified as the cause of peptic ulcers. But Blaser asserts that this bacterium isn’t fully understood, as his team has found it helps to regulate appetite by modulating levels of ghrelin—a hunger-stimulating hormone.
The less ghrelin in your bloodstream, the less hungry you feel, so the less likely you are to overeat. Blaser and his team have shown that those with H pylori in their stomachs have less ghrelin circulating. But H pylori, once abundant in our digestive tracts, now rarely makes an appearance. Blaser asserts this reduction is due to hyper-vigilance around germ control (i.e. the overuse of hand sanitizers and antibiotics). (5)
Diet is critical in shaping the gut ecosystem.
A diet of highly processed foods, for example, has been linked to a less diverse gut community in people. As mentioned already, less gut diversity is associated to excess weight.(6)
A Washington University team demonstrated the complex interaction among food, microbes and body weight by feeding their so-called humanized mice a specially prepared unhealthy chow reflective of the Western diet, (high in “bad” fats, low fibre). Mice with microbes linked to obesity grew fat.(7)
Blaser ‘s NYU team conducted another study whereby young mice were given low doses of antibiotics, similar to what farmers give livestock. Interestingly, the mice developed about 15 percent more body fat than the control group. The mice were then given a high-fat diet along with antibiotics. The outcome? They became obese!
These findings seem to reflect the Canadian reality. Most Canadians are eating a “Western diet” and are regularly being exposed to antibiotics, either through medical use or simply through the daily consumption of factory farmed animal products. Could this explain why over two-thirds of us are overweight or obese? Food for thought!
Another interesting tidbit, from our friends to the South. Professor Blaser found that states with the highest rates of antibiotic use also have the highest rates of obesity.
A 2016 article published in the journal, Frontiers in Microbiology, reviewed the negative impact antibiotic over-exposure is having on the human microbiome and our health. In a nutshell, our immune and metabolic homeostasis is disrupted, and that’s bad news for weight management.(8)
Fact: the interaction between diet and gut bacteria can predispose us to obesity from the day we are born! Studies have shown that both formula-fed babies, and infants delivered by cesarean section, have a higher risk for obesity and diabetes than those who are breast-fed or delivered vaginally. Babies who pass through their mother’s birth canal (another bacteria rich part of the human body), and those who are breast-fed, end up leaner and healthier overall. (9)
We’re still light years away from being able to pop a probiotic with the precise strain which will enable you to shed the weight while still enjoying those 3 cans of Coke each day and running around at Mach 3 speed much of the time. Okay, a bit tongue in cheek…
I hope you can appreciate that obesity (or any disease state for that matter) is not that simple. Remember, everything in the body is connected, and it is no coincidence that my clients are not able to lose weight until they deal with their underlying gut weaknesses, which may or may not be evident to them.
So my goal is to get clients healthy to lose weight rather than lose weight to get healthy. Consider trying to grow a lush green garden in a dump. To grow a thriving garden, you need the right foundation. The same principle applies to your gut garden.
How do you grow a healthy gut garden? It starts with diet and lifestyle of course!
- Diversify your diet. Eating a wide range of foods will encourage microbial diversity.(10) We’ve significantly lost dietary diversity over the past 50 years. If you compare the ingredients of the countless packaged foods which line grocery store shelves, you’ll notice lots of repetition. Food scientists create processed foods with the primary goal of creating something you’ll repeatedly buy for the lowest cost possible. Because of this, the ingredients they are using are not diverse at all. Various forms of wheat, milk, corn, and soy dominate.
I often tell clients to mostly shop the perimeter of the grocery store, as most processed, dead, extended shelf-life food is in the aisles.
To keep it simple, Eat Real Food! Stay away from packaged, convenience foods as much as possible.
- Eat fermented food daily, which are full of probiotics (the good microbes). Here is a blog I wrote which lists common fermented foods available to you.
- Eat prebiotic foods daily, which act like food for our resident microbes. Here is a list of prebiotic foods.
- On the lifestyle side of things, consider what parts of your life need your attention. Develop a routine to counter stress. There are so many ways; walking in nature, exercise, prayer or meditation, or anything else that leaves you feeling refreshed and emotionally lighter. Lessen your toxic load. Choose less toxic toiletries, cleaning supplies, and opt for essential oil diffusers rather than artificially scented candles and air fresheners. Finally, get proper and adequate sleep! Enough said.