Our guts are home to trillions of bacteria, some good, some bad. What is most certain is that they have a tremendous impact on our health. These organisms in our gut, or intestinal microbiome, can be influenced by several factors including where you live, stress, and alcohol. But it is believed that our diet has the greatest impact on our gut’s microbiome. Disruption of this delicate system has been linked to an array of maladies including obesity, diabetes, and depression. More and more research is demonstrating that these bacteria have a far greater influence on our general health than we thought.
The traditional Western diet consisting of high fat, high protein, and more than a modest amount of alcohol has been shown to alter the gut’s microbiome in a negative way. The Western diet leads to alterations in the gut’s protective function. Because of this, toxins leak from the gut and into our bloodstream resulting in low grade inflammation. The Western diet has been linked with cardiovascular disease and diabetes – both associated with increased levels of inflammation in the body.
Most research has compared the traditional Western diet with vegetarianism, which not surprisingly is not associated with leaky guts and inflammation. But if you’re reading this you’re probably not eating fast food or buying your groceries at places that also sell clothes and lawn supplies. You may adhere to the Paleo diet, or even be strictly vegan. Although, we know that these diets affect the composition of the gut microbiome I have yet to find research that compares their influence on the protective and more beneficial bacteria of the gut (if you are aware of such research, please share it with us!)
Although, there have been studies showing that high protein and high fat diets contribute to alterations in the gut’s microbiome that result in inflammation and even colon cancer, the types of protein and fats the studies were using are not characteristic of a Paleo diet or any other (non-Western) that focuses on high fat and high protein. There is clearly a difference between lard (used in one comparative study) and the fat found in almonds and avocados.
I think the common thread that connects all “bad” diets is not necessarily a food group, but rather how processed it is, in other words, how far removed is it from it’s original natural source. What is most important for our gut health, in my opinion, is not the food group we consume most of but whether it is real–whole foods. As this article from Nature points out, our bodies have learned to adapt to various diets:
Our findings that the human gut microbiome can rapidly switch between herbivorous and carnivorous functional profiles may reflect past selective pressures during human evolution. Consumption of animal foods by our ancestors was likely volatile, depending on season and stochastic foraging success, with readily available plant foods offering a fallback source of calories and nutrients. Microbial communities that could quickly, and appropriately, shift their functional repertoire in response to diet change would have subsequently enhanced human dietary flexibility.
What is clear is that our body’s adaptation to the modern diet is anything but adaptive. Ultimately, you need to determine what foods are best for you knowing that your gut’s microbiome is influenced by many factors including genetics, where you live, but most importantly your diet. Perhaps, less attention needs to be on whether one specific diet is better, and simply focusing on eating real food – as Jennifer Aniston said “just stop eating shit.”