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Gut health and weight loss

Author: Carli Gaines, MSOM, RN, LAc, 9/14/2018 8:22:00 AM

Ever wonder why some people seem to lose weight easily while others can struggle to shed pounds even when they are exercising and eating well? By now most of us have heard the term “microbiome” and have some understanding of the importance of our body’s “good” bacteria for our immune system and overall health. But did you know your microbiome can also affect your ability to lose weight? 

The purpose of a recently published Mayo Clinic study (1) was to look at why, when following a comprehensive weight loss plan with dietary changes, exercise and counseling, some people have success but some individuals still do not lose weight. This study found that people who did not meet the weight loss goal had an over-abundance of bacteria that have increased ability to metabolize carbohydrates. In other words, their gut bacteria may be extracting more energy from foods compared to other types of bacteria, thus making it harder to lose weight despite calorie reduction.

So what can you do to change and support your microbiome? This was a pilot study, so more exploration needs to be done to make final conclusions and recommendations for improving the microbiome specifically for weight loss. However, we already know that certain lifestyle and diet factors help to support a more balanced and healthy microbiome.

  • Remove or limit processed foods and sugar from your diet- studies have shown that diets high in sugar and refined grains support overgrowth of gut bacteria that are associated with IBS, obesity, and other preventable diseases, as well as fostering a less diverse microbiome (2). The bacteria in your gut can actually affect your food cravings, so if you crave these things, it’s possible you have an unbalanced microbiome. It will take some focus, but if you cut them out for at least 3 days, your cravings can dramatically reduce as your gut bacteria adjusts.
  • Focus on increasing vegetables and whole foods- conversely to sugar and refined grains, insoluble fibers—sometimes called “pre-biotics”—from vegetables and whole grains promote populations of helpful bacteria and improve bacterial diversity. Not only are these foods healthier in general, they keep your microbiome balanced so it can work with you instead of against you. Try to include a “rainbow” of fruits and veggies during the day and switch to whole grains whenever possible. Need inspiration? Use Pinterest or Google “whole food recipes” for lots of ideas on how to cook with whole foods and also how to have grab-and-go whole food snacks on hand.
  • Stop using artificial sweeteners- although they used to be considered a healthier alternative to sugar and are calorie-free, we now know that artificial sweeteners (in diet sodas and other “sugar-free” foods) can change your gut flora, increase glucose intolerance and negatively affect weight (3). Some suggest that by altering the microbiome in this way, artificial sweeteners are more harmful to health than consuming sugar.
  • Try fermented foods- a good source of live probiotics; sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt (plain with no added sugar) are good options to add to the diet daily. Once you cut out foods that contribute to an unbalanced microbiome, it can be helpful to add in healthy cultures to support growth of beneficial bacteria.
  • De-stress- we now know that there is actually a strong connection between the health of our microbiome and our mental health (4). Prolonged periods of stress and its effects on your body and nervous system can also negatively impact your gut bacteria. Vice versa, an unbalanced microbiome has also been shown to be correlated with higher risk of depression and anxiety. Make this another reason to change up your nutrition and do some self-care; a happy belly makes a happy brain!
  • Exercise- a no brainer for weight loss, but there is research that shows regular exercise can also improve your microbiome (5), a win-win!

While you’ve likely heard some of these suggestions before when thinking about weight loss, try to reframe them as a way to not only support your health and weight goals but by supporting and promoting the health of your microbiome. The biggest take away is that weight loss and optimal health are more than cutting calories. As with most things, quality over quantity is best.