Are Gut Bacteria Controlling What We Eat?

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • Are the bacteria in our gut calling the shots when it comes to the foods we eat? Do we crave cookies because cookies are what the bacteria want to eat?

     

    It sounds weird, but there’s growing evidence that it might be true.

     

    It’s been known for some time that obese people have different bacteria in their gut than skinny people, but it wasn’t clear if this was a cause or an effect of body mass. I wrote about this several years ago, and wondered if the bacteria could be influencing behavior, although at the time I thought it was a pretty far-out idea.

     

    Now the idea is becoming more plausible. One recent study showed that the gut bacteria can influence moods in mice, making them more or less cautious. When germ-free mice from a cautious strain were colonized by bacteria from a more active and daring strain, the cautious mice became more active and daring, and vice versa.

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    Some bacteria seem to prefer carbs, while others prefer fat as an energy source. The interesting thing is that the bacterial populations in our gut can vary with our diet, so if we eat a high-carb diet, we may select for bacteria that love carbs, and if we eat a high-fat diet, we may select for bacteria that love fat.

     

    If we eat a diet high in both fat and carbs, we’d probably have bacteria that love them both.

     

    Then, in turn, the bacteria may influence us to eat more of their preferred food or, if they like everything, just to eat more food, a sure-fire recipe for obesity.

     

    The good news is that we can change the composition of bacteria in our gut by changing our diet. So this research may have some practical value.

     

    When we’ve recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, chances are good we’ve been on a standard American diet, meaning lots of processed carbs and lots of fat, and that’s what our bacteria will urge us to eat.

     

    So, at first, trying to change to a healthier diet will be very difficult. Our bacteria will be screaming for more doughnuts and fries. We may be ravenously hungry all the time.

     

    That was true for me, especially when I was on a low-fat, higher-carbohydrate diet. But my diet gradually morphed into a low-carb diet, and the cravings for carbs went away. Today I can read an article about the new cupcake craze, and I have zero interest in eating a cupcake. I think my bacteria prefer protein and fat.

     

    But what this means, I think, is that if we want to maintain a new diet, whatever that is, it’s important to stick to that diet almost all the time. In the early years, when I would still have happily eaten a cupcake, if I had, I would have fed those bacteria that want cupcakes, they would have multiplied and kept sending signals telling me to eat more cupcakes.

     

    By refusing to eat cupcakes, maybe I’ve gotten rid of most of those cupcake-loving bacteria, so they’re no longer screaming at me to eat cupcakes. I think they’d much rather eat meat, some fat, nonstarchy vegetables, homemade kefir, and berries, and that’s what I eat now.

  •  

    Both I and my bacteria are happy.

    Are the bacteria in our gut calling the shots when it comes to what foods we eat? Do we crave cookies because cookies are what the bacteria want to eat?

     

    It sounds weird, but there’s growing evidence it might be true.

     

    It’s been known for some time that obese people have different bacteria in their gut than skinny people, but it wasn’t clear if this was a cause or an effect of body mass. I wrote about this several years ago, and wondered if the bacteria could be influencing behavior, although at the time I thought it was a pretty far-out idea.

     

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    Now the idea is becoming more plausible. One recent study showed that the gut bacteria can influence moods in mice, making them more or less cautious. When germ-free mice from a cautious strain were colonized by bacteria from a more active and daring strain, the cautious mice became more active and daring, and vice versa.

     

    Some bacteria seem to prefer carbs and other bacteria prefer fat as an energy source. The interesting thing is that the bacterial populations in our gut can vary with our diets, so if we eat a high-carb diet, we may select for bacteria that love carbs, and if we eat a high-fat diet, we may select for bacteria that love fat.

     

    If we eat a diet high in both fat and carbs, we’d probably have bacteria that love them both.

     

    Then in turn, the bacteria may influence us to eat more of their preferred food or, if they like everything, just to eat more food, a sure-fire recipe for obesity.

     

    The good news is that we can change the composition of bacteria in our gut by changing our diet. So this research may have some practical value.

     

    When we’ve recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, chances are good we’ve been on a standard American diet, meaning lots of processed carbs and lots of fat, and that’s what our bacteria will urge us to eat.

     

    So, at first, trying to change to a healthier diet will be very difficult. Our bacteria will be screaming for more doughnuts and fries. We may be ravenously hungry all the time.

     

    That was true for me, especially when I was on a low-fat, higher-carbohydrate diet. But my diet gradually morphed into a low-carb diet, and the cravings for carbs went away. Today I can read an article about the new cupcake craze, and I have zero interest in eating a cupcake. I think my bacteria prefer protein and fat.

     

    But what this means, I think, is that if we want to maintain a new diet, whatever that is, it’s important to stick to that diet almost all the time. In the early years, when I would still have happily eaten a cupcake, if I had, I would have fed those bacteria that want cupcakes, they would have multiplied and kept sending signals telling me to eat more cupcakes.

     

    By refusing to eat cupcakes, maybe I’ve gotten rid of most of those cupcake-loving bacteria, so they’re no longer screaming at me to eat cupcakes. I think they’d much rather eat meat, some fat, nonstarchy vegetables, homemade kefir, and berries, and that’s what I eat now.

  •  

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    Both I and my bacteria are happy.

     

Published On: August 19, 2014