Calories In, Calories Out? — May Not Always Be the Simple Equation to Weight Loss

By Jessica Brown, RD, CSP, CNSC, clinical dietitian at CHOC

The appreciation for bacteria living in our gut, and how it affects our health, is quickly gaining traction. Studies have shown that the 100 trillion microbes that live in and on the human body, called the microbiome, play an important role in overall health, including diabetes, celiac disease, allergy and autism.

Growing evidence over the past 10 years has even linked the gut microbiome to obesity. A study published in Science, a leading scientific journal, in 2013 contributed to this association. Researchers transplanted germ-free mice with fecal microbiota from obese and lean adult twins. They found that those mice transplanted with the obese gut microbiota had an increase in body mass and fat accumulation compared to those transplanted with lean gut microbes. One of the proposed theories is that obese microbiomes can harvest or release more energy from dietary components, such as non-digestible fiber, which contributes to weight gain. Further, this study showed that a lean gut microbiome can displace an obese one, preventing weight gain, if they consumed a healthy diet.

There are multiple influences to our microbiome at an early age, including what type of birth, (C-section versus natural birth), what type of feeding (formula versus breastmilk), and early exposure to antibiotics. Other influences include our environment and diet.

Eating a high-fiber diet, rich in fruits and vegetables and low in meats, refined carbohydrates, and artificial sweeteners has been shown to increase the beneficial bacteria in our gut.

Prebiotic foods such as asparagus, artichokes, garlic, leeks, onions, oats and lentils have been shown to keep our microbiome healthy. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir are also beneficial.

A recent report published in the Diabetes and Metabolism Journal summarized multiple studies that demonstrate the potential benefits of probiotics – live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your digestive system — on the prevention and treatment of obesity and inflammation. It is important to realize that there are multiple strains of probiotics, and each strain has different effects. The effects of probiotics and obesity deserves further attention before specific recommendations can be made in the health care setting.

With the increasing prevalence in obesity, it is exciting that the manipulation of gut flora may be an integral part of weight loss and disease prevention in the future. So, it may not be just about how many calories you eat and how much you exercise that determines your weight, but what you eat and the health of your gut bacteria.

Learn more about CHOC Clinical Nutrition and Lactation Services.

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