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Can Gut Bacteria Make You Fat?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues, Obesity

bacteria

Gut Bacteria, Diet and Obesity

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

 

Can gut bacteria make you fat? It has been known for some time that the types of bacteria found in the intestines of obese people are different than those found in the intestines of lean individuals. But no one really knew the significance, if any, of that observation. Did obesity favor certain types of intestinal bacteria, or did certain types of intestinal bacteria favor obesity?

Obese individuals are often insulin resistant, and insulin resistance can cause higher sugar levels in the blood, urine and intestine. So it was easy to assume that obesity simply favored the growth of different types of bacteria in the intestine. However, recent studies have suggested that certain types of bacteria in our intestines may actually cause obesity.

Can Gut Bacteria Make You Fat?

For example, one study (Vijay-Kumar et al, Science, 328: 228-231, 2010) compared a strain of mice that are genetically predisposed to obesity with wild type (genetically lean) mice. They first looked at the intestinal bacteria. It turned out that the obese mice and lean mice had the same differences in intestinal bacteria that obese and lean humans have. And just like obese humans the obese mice ate more, displayed insulin resistance, and had elevated levels of triglycerides, cholesterol and blood sugar (They were pre-diabetic).

The investigators then decided to test the hypothesis that the particular bacterial strains found in the intestines of genetically obese mice might be causing their insulin resistance and obesity.

In the first experiment they killed off the intestinal bacteria in the genetically obese mice by putting high dose antibiotics in their food. Depleting the intestinal bacteria created some health problems for the mice, but it completely prevented the insulin resistance, overeating and obesity normally observed with this strain of mice.

In the second experiment they sterilized the intestines of the genetically lean mice and then colonized their intestines with intestinal bacteria from the genetically obese mice. When they did this, the genetically lean mice developed many of the characteristics of the genetically obese mice including insulin resistance, overeating, obesity and hyperglycemia.

insulin resistanceIn short, when their guts became colonized with bacteria from obese mice, the genetically lean mice became overweight and developed diabetes. Based on these experiments and other studies the scientists hypothesized that the wrong kinds of intestinal bacteria can make a significant contribution to insulin resistance, which in turn can lead to overeating and obesity. In short, they concluded that bad gut bacteria may make you fat.

The Battle of The Bacteria

In a second study (Walker et al, Science, 341: 1079-1089, 2013) the intestines of germ free mice were colonized with gut bacteria from lean and obese humans. The results were essentially the same as in the first study. That is, the mice who received gut bacteria from lean humans stayed lean and those who received gut bacteria from obese humans became obese.

But then the investigators asked two really interesting questions:

1) If you mixed the two types of bacteria, which one would win “the battle of the bacteria”?

For this experiment they took mice that had received gut bacteria from lean humans and mice that had received gut bacteria from obese humans and put them in the same cage. It turns out that since mice eat each other’s poop, they pick up each other’s intestinal bacteria. (No, I am not suggesting that you…)

The results of this experiment were (envelop please): The “lean” bacteria won out. They became the predominant bacteria in the intestines of all of the mice in the cage. Furthermore, none of the mice became obese – even the ones that had originally been inoculated with gut bacteria from obese humans.

2) Are the types of bacteria in the intestine influenced by diet?

In the previous experiment the mice were eating standard mouse chow – which is pretty healthy if you are a mouse. So the investigators decided to ask what would happen if they ate foods that were similar to really good and really bad human diets. They devised two types of diets for the mice – one that was high in fresh fruits & vegetable and low in fat (the good diet) and one that was high in fat and low in fresh fruits and vegetables (the bad diet).

On the good diet, the results were the same as in the previous experiment. On the bad diet the “lean” bacteria never grew in the intestines of the mice inoculated with bacteria from obese humans and those mice went on to become obese.

This study confirmed that the wrong kind of gut bacteria can cause obesity, but it also showed that diet can influence the type of bacteria that can grow in the intestine – something I talked about in an earlier issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”  Our Gut Bacteria Are What We Eat.

The Bottom Line

1) Does this mean that you should rush out and buy some probiotics (good bacteria) as part of your weight loss strategy? The simple answer is no. That would be premature. These studies were performed in mice. Although similar results have been reported in humans (for example, Jumpertz et al, Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 94: 58-65, 2011), those studies are very preliminary at present. In addition, genetics and diet obviously played a role in the results. In short, we are a long way from knowing to what extent intestinal bacteria might contribute to obesity in humans.

2) However, there are many very good reasons to make sure that you supply friendly bacteria to your intestinal track on a regular basis. For example, we know that bad bacteria in your intestine can compromise your immune system, convert foods that you eat to cancer causing chemicals, and cause chronic inflammation – which contributes to a number of major diseases.  Can gut bacteria make you fat?  We can’t yet say whether good bugs will help keep you slim, but we do know that they can help keep you healthy.

3) Finally, while we can’t yet say whether probiotic supplements can help you lose weight, it is becoming increasing clear that healthy diets (low fat, high fiber diets with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables) support the type of intestinal bacteria that can make you slim. This is yet one more reason why a healthy diet is so important if you want to stay slim and healthy.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (4)

  • Wanda Arrington

    |

    Thanks for all your information. It is very useful to me.

    Reply

  • Viki Hom

    |

    How interesting. I’m curious about this- “And just like obese humans the obese mice ate more, displayed insulin resistance, and had elevated levels of triglycerides, cholesterol and blood sugar (They were pre-diabetic).”-

    If a person was not technically, “obese,” yet was overweight, and was plagued by all of the aliments listed above, could it still be a good bacteria/bad bacteria problem? I must test the theory!

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Vikki,
      You are correct. you don’t have to be obese to have bad bacteria. That appears to be largely determined by diet.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Laura Johnson

    |

    My interest in gut health began over 20 years ago and continues to this day. I am a certified wound, ostomy and continence RN and this sort of goes with the territory. I have seen what a healthy gut looks like inside and out along with the unhealthy gut. Diet plays a prominent part as does supplementation. “You are what you eat” is really true! Thanks so much for the information.

    Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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