I remember the first time _ many years ago _ that I heard the term "probiotic"
at a nutrition conference. I was amazed as I listened to the speaker review
volumes of research about these "good gut bacteria" that help our body digest
food, assist in making B-vitamins and vitamin K, and fight against aggressive
disease-causing bacteria. Fascinating.
Today, a whole new area of nutrition research _ including the "Human Microbiome
Project" _ is seeking to understand how specific "gut flora" (beneficial
microorganisms that live in our intestinal tract) affect our health.
And there's plenty to understand. According to a recent article in the Journal
of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, people with normal digestion tend to
have different types of gut bacteria than people with irritable bowel syndrome
(IBS) and other digestive disorders. Our ability to gain or lose weight may even
be influenced by the type and amount of bacteria in our intestines, according to
preliminary research. Wow.
So what do bacteria in our intestines have to do with nutrition? Plenty. The
foods we eat affect the flora that grows in our gut. And the flora that grows in
our gut can impact our health, say researchers.
Here's one way it may work: Dietary fiber _ the indigestible part of a plant
food _ travels through the body ... undigested. When it reaches the lower end of
the digestive tract (the colon), it becomes food for the friendly microbes
(probiotics) that live there.
These bacteria ferment the fiber (known as "prebiotics") and produce short chain
fatty acids _ substances that nourish and preserve cells in the colon and the
liver. It's this process, say researchers, that may help prevent
gastrointestinal diseases as well as cancer and heart disease.
All gut bacteria is not created equal, however. My microbiota is different from
your microbiota, say experts. And our gut bacteria is altered by the types of
foods we eat.
People who eat a high fiber diet, for example _ rich in vegetables, fruit, whole
grains, beans, and nuts _ have a more diverse variety of gut microflora,
according to nutrition professor Megan Baumler, PhD, RD. (Good bacteria in our
colon, remember, thrive on dietary fiber.) And a thriving assortment of these
microorganisms in the gut is considered very beneficial.
We can also eat foods or take supplements that contain "probiotics" (beneficial
bacteria) or "prebiotics" (plant fibers that feed gut flora), says researcher
Peter Beyer, MS, RD. Cultured dairy foods like yogurt or kefir contain
probiotics for example. And we are beginning to learn how various probiotics are
specific to certain health conditions. Fascinating.
Stress can disrupt the level of healthy gut bacteria in our gut, say experts.
All the better to continue eating a high fiber plant-based diet during times of
stress, they advise.
These associations between what we eat, our gut bacteria and our health are
truly sensational. But so is a good diet, says Beyer. "It's plant-based, high
fiber, and it's what we've been saying all along."
Now we have one more reason.
(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the
Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of the "Diabetes
DTOUR Diet" (Rodale 2009) and the "Diabetes DTOUR Diet Cookbook" (Rodale 2010).
Email her at email@example.com.)
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