ICYMI, gut health is kind of a big deal right now. Whether you’ve added a bit of kraut to your daily regimen, started regularly taking a probiotic or have managed to tie a nagging ailment or two to your unhappy insides, there’s a good chance you’ve learned a thing or two about maintaining solid gut health and why it’s important.

And that’s great. But what about the science behind it? At first glance, that might sound a bit bo-ring, but the truth is knowing a bit more about the inner workings of, well, your insides, might also help you gain further understanding about how to optimise your day-to-day habits.

Let’s turn to one of the most important studies to date on the microbiome for insight into how to optimise gut health. Published in 2014 in Nature, the study outlined a procedure where researchers fed a group of people two very different diets: a “plant-based diet”, which was rich in grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables; and an “animal-based diet”, which was composed of meats, eggs, and various types of cheese [1]. Each diet was consumed for five consecutive days and the microbiome was analysed on a daily basis. What they discovered literally changed the way we think about how our gut microbiome interacts with our food.

Pretty rad, right? But what exactly happened? For starters, dramatic changes occurred in the gut microbiome almost immediately. Yes, food was proven to significantly alter the microbiome, and the results between the animal- and plant-based diets were vast.

The animal-based diet promoted the growth of inflammatory bacteria (AlistipesBilophila, and Bacteroides) and decreased the levels of anti-inflammatory bacteria (Roseburia,Eubacteriumrectale, and Ruminococcus bromii). And if you’re still thinking, “OK, yeah, so what?” then consider this: One of the bacteria that thrived on the animal-based diet was Bilophila wadsworthia, which has been strongly associated with the development of inflammatory bowel disease, especially according to a 2015 study published in Digestive Diseases [2].

That’s right, in just days the study participants saw that their diet was already laying down the foundation for the future development of digestive conditions, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

That’s not all — the animal-based diet, which obviously lacks fibre, also resulted in significantly lower levels of short-chain fatty acids (which play a significant role in maintaining colon health. Of course, that doesn’t come as a surprise. Put simply if you don’t eat fibre, then you won’t benefit from something — in this case short-chain fatty acids — that’s the byproduct of fibre. But this leads to an even larger problem because short-chain fatty acids have incredible healing properties that affect digestive health, the immune system, different organ systems throughout the body including the heart and the brain, and even have an influence over genetic expression [3].

The animal-based diet also increased expression of the genes that process bile salts to create secondary bile salts. Why is this important? Multiple studies have shown secondary bile salts are associated with both colon and liver cancers [4][5]. So, yeah, the (animal-based-eat-all-the-meat) picture isn’t pretty.

Which Brings Us To The Moral Of The Story

Our dietary choices have an almost immediate impact on our microbiome and the results can be widely different. Feeding fibre to the gut microbes through a plant-centered diet promotes anti-inflammatory gut bugs who help you heal by releasing short-chain fatty acids. Alternatively, filling your plate with meat does have its consequences. Within a mere matter of days, inflammatory bacteria move in and form the constructs for future inflammatory bowel disease, or even colon cancer.

So, while superfoods, supplements, and prebiotics or probiotics have their place in the gut microbiome conversation, at the end of the day the most important factor in gut health is your diet. All the more reason to eat all the plants, am I right?


Featured Image Source: @sbculliton

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24336217
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465549/
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388214
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24884764
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23803760