All about gut bacteria

Judith Wills / 01 July 2015

Diet and wellbeing blogger Judith Wills takes a look at research into the microbiome, or gut bacteria, that reveals it is far more important than previously thought.

Now here's a fascinating topic (but perhaps best to come back in a few minutes when you've finished your breakfast). Gut microbes. Or call them gut flora, if you're feeling sensitive.

These little beasts – we each have, or should have, about 100 trillion of them, weighing in total 2-3 lbs – are, it turns out, perhaps the most important influence on our health and our weight.

Yes, we've known for ages, thanks to research for yogurt companies such as Yakult and Danone, that so-called 'bio' or 'live' yogurt contains millions of live microbes in a serving and may help to keep 'good' gut bacteria numbers up. We've probably even heard of prebiotics (foods we can eat, such as asparagus, artichokes and bananas, that our gut bacteria like to feast on).

But apart from a vague knowledge that gut bacteria may be important for digestive health and may help ease problems such as IBS, it seems most of us don't give the 100 trillion a second thought, week in, week out.

Perhaps we should. For scientists now believe, in the light of much research done in recent years, that the microbiome – their preferred term – has far more wide-ranging effects than simply on gut health, and is probably THE most important influence on our immune system, our brain health, our mood – and our weight.

'Bad' or toxic gut bacteria can have a negative influence, for example increasing inflammation in the body (linked to cancer and heart disease) and increasing weight, while good bacteria can do the opposite and can even help in the battle against diabetes and mental health, finds one of the UK's leading researchers into the microbiome, Professor Tim Spector.

We need not be blinded by the current science behind this, but I can pass on some simple pieces of advice based on what the scientists are discovering.

In order to minimise 'bad' bacteria and increase production of 'good' bacteria we should:

  • Eat a diet low in highly-processed 'junk' foods and sugary items.
  • Eat as wide a variety of foods as possible to increase the diversity of the bacteria, an important factor in general health.
  • Avoid diets, slimming or otherwise, that restrict you to a few food types and will therefore diminish diversity.
  • Not follow a low-fat diet. Fatty foods such as full fat yogurt, cheese and plant oils help good bacteria to flourish. Unpasteurised cheese is particularly helpful as it contains more microbes than pasteurised types.
  • We should also exercise regularly - this stimulates our good bacteria to boost the immune system.

These are all tips we've heard before but, excitingly, now we are beginning to have proof of just how and why they may work to help us stay healthy and slim.

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