Can bacteria fight fat?

2013July08_WeightLoss_AWe’ve all got friends who we secretly envy for their ability to eat pretty much anything they like without putting on an ounce of weight or having to loosen their belts. Some people seem to be forever counting every calorie and forgoing treats, while others seem to get away with chowing down bagels and candy. “I’ve got a very fast metabolism,” they claim as they wipe rich gravy from their chin. According to some recent scientific research the secret behind marvelous metabolisms and skinny figures may lie in bacteria.

We all too often think of bacteria as harmful; a microcosm that brings disease and illness. However, there are many types of bacteria that can be extremely beneficial to our bodies. Indeed, life would be impossible without them. Without the 500 or so species of bacteria residing in our gastrointestinal tracts, helping digest our food and fight viruses and bugs, we simply couldn’t survive. Bacteria in our intestines produce and secrete vitamins that are vital for our vitality. It isn’t just our bodies that benefit either. In a bacteria free world there would be no cheese to enjoy or even oxygen to breathe. Little wonder that scientists are now looking at bacteria as a meter of health that can predict which people put on weight.

Weight is about your gut! No really!

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that one type of bacteria can dramatically alter the health of obese mice, by changing the gut lining and how the body absorbs the food. It is hoped that these findings can be replicated in humans. Our guts are a playground for bacteria, but the type and number can differ greatly between people who are lean and people who are overweight. The balance can also change in people who’ve undergone gastric bypass operations.

The research

Scientists at Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain worked with one particular type of stomach bacteria, the akkermansia muciniphila. They noted that this strain, which normally makes up to 5% of gut bacteria, was found in much lower levels in obese people. They wanted to know if boosting levels of this bacteria would speed up the metabolism in mice on a high fat diet which led them to putting on up to three times more fat. They were fed oligofructose prebiotics – a dietary supplement to promote the growth of the beneficial muciniphila bacteria. No other changes were made to the diet.

The findings

Soon the mice were found to have lost half of their extra weight as though their metabolisms had speeded up. It seemed that the prebiotics boosted the muciniphila levels back to normal levels. Although they still remained larger than the average mouse. The results were significant, as the test mice also had lower levels of insulin resistance, a key symptom of Type-2 diabetes.

How did it work?

The gut has a natural covering of mucus called the mucosal barrier which covers every inch of the gut’s 1,000-square-foot surface. Increasing levels of a. muciniphila increased the thickness of this barrier, stopping material passing from the guts into the blood.  As in patients with gastric bands, there was a change in the chemical systems of the digestive systems that led to changes in the way the body began to process fat. The fact that there was a reversal in obesity-related metabolic disorders, such as fat gain, adipose tissue inflammation and insulin resistance was amazing, especially considering doctors were only looking at one of the many hundreds of bacteria types in the gut. Professor  Patrice Cani, said: “It is the first demonstration that there is a direct link between one specific bacteria species and improving metabolism.”

Fighting fat and killer diseases

Of course, it is early days yet. The studies did not reverse obesity in mice totally and humans are a very different species. But perhaps in the future, these bacteria can be used as one weapon in the fight against fat, and of course, Type-2 diabetes which is increasingly a killer.

Diet and exercise help too!

It is doubtful that any time soon you will be able to sit down and stuff yourself silly with your metabolically fast friends and then pop a bacteria pill to burn fat off without feeling the burn in a fitness class. However, oligofructose prebiotics can be found in small quantities in leeks, bananas, onions and artichokes. Try adding some of those to your diet to see what happens. The most important part of this study is that it increases our understanding of how our digestive systems work and will perhaps lead us to enjoy better fat busting diets in the future. Until then, it looks like we all have to keep up the good work at the gym

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