It seems odd, but there are plenty of bacteria in our bellies that we actually want to be there. However, what we eat can change the type and amount of healthy bacteria, as research on prebiotics and probiotics has shown. But just how much can these gut bacteria affect our overall health? A recent study from University of Florence in Italy illuminates the vast difference in stomach bacteria of African versus European children and sheds further light on the detrimental effect of the so-called “Western diet.”
Scientists compared a group of West African children aged 1 to 6 years from a small, rural village in Burkina Faso to a group of European children of the same age living in urban Florence, Italy. The African children consumed a local, low-fat, high-fiber, almost entirely vegetarian diet and were breastfed up to 2 years of age. The Italian children consumed a typical Western diet high in animal protein, sugar, starch and fat, low in fiber and were breastfed for one year. The Italians also consumed about 55 percent more calories than the Africans.
The analysis showed an immense difference in gut bacteria. The African children had a greater number of bacteria that help break down fiber to use for energy while the Italian children had more bacteria that are indicated in a high-calorie diet and might predispose them to obesity in later years. Further analysis revealed additional benefits of the African diet: greater bacterial diversity and a higher amount of short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acid compounds that are produced in the gut from the breakdown of fiber, are anti-inflammatory, provide intestinal cells with energy, and appear to help prevent the colonization of “bad” bacteria in the intestines. In fact, the African children’s intestines had fewer pathogenic bacteria, such as those that cause diarrhea, than did the Italian children’s.
The researchers noted that as developed countries started improving sanitation and using more antibiotics and vaccines, there was a simultaneous increase in allergies, autoimmune disorders and inflammatory bowel disease. It is possible, they hypothesized, that the subsequent change in gut bacteria may have played a role in these adverse health outcomes.
Although the results reveal the powerful effect diet can have on the body, it is important to note that this study was quite small, examining only 15 Italian and 14 African children. However, with the multitude of research indicating the drawbacks of the traditional Western diet, particularly for children, and the benefits of a high-fiber, plant-based, low-processed foods diet, it is safe to surmise that it is best to choose the latter.
For a diet higher in fiber and plant proteins, put these on your grocery list:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains: 100 percent whole wheat bread, 100 percent whole wheat pasta, whole grain (but low-sugar) cereals, oatmeal, millet, quinoa and barley.
- Meat-free sandwiches: Nut butter and jelly (both with no sugar added); hummus, cucumber, tomato and sprouts; “TLT” (tempeh, lettuce, and tomato); or avocado, cheese and tomato
- Plant proteins: beans, tofu, nut butters, tempeh or seitan (wheat gluten) to replace meat a few times per week
- Snacks: hummus, black bean dip, edamame (boiled soybeans), nut butters on fruit, whole-grain crackers, carrot and celery sticks and graham crackers