For so many people, weight loss is a goal that remains elusive, even after trying countless fad diets and exercise programs. As researchers continue to study the science behind body weight changes, however, other factors have emerged that may play a significant role in how to actually lose weight. In the last few decades, new evidence has pointed to the health of the gut microbiome as one of those potential contributing factors. This means that eating foods that are beneficial for gut health may actually also be helpful for weight loss.
Introduction to the Gut Microbiome
The human body is host to a diverse community of microorganisms that we are in a symbiotic relationship with. Trillions of microbes made up of hundreds of species live in various nooks and crannies around the body. The vast majority of these are beneficial bacteria that live along the gastrointestinal tract, and they perform a number of different functions that we rely on daily to maintain good health. Here are some of the main functions of these “good bacteria:”
- Nutrient synthesis: Most of the nutrients we need to maintain regular function come from foods we eat, but some need to be synthesized by the healthy gut bacteria living primarily in the large intestine. These good gut bacteria are responsible for synthesizing short chain fatty acids, some of the B vitamins, and up to half of our daily vitamin K requirement.
- Digestion: Every time we eat food, it goes into the stomach where it is broken down into a mostly liquid substance called chyme. The chyme then moves into the small intestine where digestive enzymes from the liver and pancreas further break it down so that individual components can be absorbed by the small intestine. The remaining substance is mostly waste when it arrives in the colon, but the gut microbiota are able to further metabolize otherwise indigestible parts of fiber, sugar, or starch.
- Defense against pathogens: Good gut bacteria also play an important role in bolstering the immune system. Some gut microbes actually release enzymes or other chemicals that directly attack pathogens as a way of preventing disease. The other major way the microbiome helps the immune system is by physically taking up space and utilizing the resources that pathogens would otherwise use. This means that a diverse microbiome prevents some illnesses simply because the pathogens that cause those illnesses have nowhere to grow and thrive.
- Reducing inflammation: Another role related to the immune system is related to the body’s inflammatory response to pathogens. While inflammation is a normal part of immune function, it can sometimes get out of control or cause additional health problems. But the gut microbiome can actually help the immune system avoid triggering problematic inflammation.
The question of precisely how the gut microbiome affects various aspects of health is still a major topic of research. Over time, though, it appears that these helpful bacteria have a much larger influence on health than scientists previously realized. Many recent studies have looked at the “gut-brain axis,” a term that refers to the biochemical relationship between the digestive system and central nervous system. These studies have shown that, in addition to digestive health, the gut microbiome may play a role in mental health, cognition, and mood regulation.
The Connection Between Gut Health and Weight Gain
Another area of research that has been getting more attention recently is the effect of the gut microbiome on body weight. Although more study is needed, it appears that dysbiosis—that is, the disruption and imbalance of gut microbiota—can cause problems with the gut barrier function that normally regulates inflammation. The resulting low-grade inflammation is then a driver of both insulin resistance and weight gain. In fact, this sort of inflammation may very well be a significant driver of obesity, metabolic disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Inflammation isn’t the only possible connection between gut health and body weight. In general, the makeup of the microbiome can affect how food is digested and how nutrients are absorbed by the intestines. It can also affect how fats are stored in the body. Another avenue of research is looking into how the microbiome impacts the production of the hormones related to hunger and satiety. In essence, there is evidence that poor gut health may increase the production of ghrelin and thus make the person feel hunger more often.
Healthy Foods for Gut Health
The good news is that while poor gut health can potentially contribute to weight gain, good gut health can also contribute to weight loss. It’s important to note that there isn’t anything magical about the gut microbiome that specifically leads to weight loss; rather, rebalancing the composition of gut bacteria can undo the negative effects of poor gut health. The main way this can be done is by making adjustments to one’s daily diet. Below are some types of food that are beneficial for gut health:
- Fermented foods: The fermentation process can generally be defined as the breakdown of a substance by microorganisms (typically bacteria or yeast). The process also usually results in the release of heat, gas, or both. When ingested, the microorganisms found in fermented food can survive and add to the diversity of the gut microbiome; this has been shown to reduce the kind of inflammation that is implicated in weight gain. Common examples of fermented foods are yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, and kombucha.
- Fruits and vegetables: Most people who follow a typical Western diet don’t get enough fruits and veggies each day. In addition to being connected to many different aspects of overall health and well-being, fruits and veggies are also important for good gut health. The high fiber content of plant foods is really important for gut health because fiber is essentially nutritious for good gut bacteria. When these bacteria use the fiber present in the colon, valuable byproducts (like the vitamins noted earlier) are produced that help the body in general and maintain the health of the microbiome. Examples of fruits and vegetables that are especially good for gut health include bananas, apples, blueberries, onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus.
- Whole grains: Whole grains also contain some valuable fiber that benefits the microbiome. But they provide additional bioactive compounds that are known to be good for gut bacteria, too. Examples include quinoa, oats, millet, and sorghum.
- Legumes: Legumes also contain dietary fiber, but they are highly recommended because they have fiber along with protein and other important nutrients. Examples of legumes that are good for gut health include lentils, soybeans, pinto beans, and chickpeas.
Sustainable Weight Loss Solutions
The research is pretty clear that gut health can have a significant impact on many different aspects of health, including body weight. By making adjustments to your diet, you can potentially improve digestion, cognition, inflammation, and body composition. But even though ongoing research continues to bear this out, it’s also clear that simply switching to gut-friendly foods will not cause you to rapidly lose a lot of excess weight. The truth is that a lot of different factors contribute to body weight, and correcting an imbalance in your microbiome is just one step toward greater health.
If you’ve been wanting to lose weight and have been looking for a new system or program, being mindful of your gut health is undoubtedly good. But most people need more than just a restrictive diet to really find the freedom they’ve been looking for. At True You Weight Loss, we are passionate about helping people find sustainable, long-term solutions to weight loss. If you’d like to learn more about our non-surgical weight loss solutions, please contact us today to request a consultation.