When you lose weight, you focus on toning your arms, your legs, and your stomach. But you may be forgetting something very important: your gut.
We each have billions of microbes in our intestines that help us digest food. Researchers have found that the makeup of bacteria in our guts can affect how we store fat, how we respond to hunger hormones, and how we balance glucose levels—all factors that can affect our weight.
Groundbreaking research in the past few years shows that the types and amounts of bacteria in the gut have a major impact on weight gain and obesity. Research on mice has found that bad bacteria cause mice to eat more and develop insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes).
Research on humans shows the same conclusions. In a study published in Nature, scientists examined the gut microbe composition of 123 non-obese people and 169 obese people. They found that people with a lower variety of gut microbes gained more weight over time. These people were also more prone to insulin resistance and other conditions related to obesity.
Fortunately, there are things we can do to decrease obesity-causing gut bacteria and increase healthy bacteria. We can even use our gut bacteria makeup to our advantage to help us lose weight.
Where Does Gut Bacteria Come From?
Our first gut bacteria arrive in babyhood; we first acquire our mother’s bacteria. Over the years, we acquire other bacteria from our environment.
The main source of gut bacteria comes from the food we eat. It’s clear that refined carbohydrates, sugar, and processed foods can all negatively affect gut bacteria.
Researchers have also pinpointed other potential causes of poor gut bacteria, such as the overuse of antibiotics, certain medications, and even stress.
Can We Change Our Gut Bacteria Makeup?
Research shows that negatively changing the bacteria makeup in the gut can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. When scientists transferred gut flora from overweight mice to skinny mice, the skinny mice developed metabolic problems that increased their obesity and diabetes risk.
While foods and environmental factors may have changed our gut bacteria over time, we can also make choices that reverse those changes.
We may not be able to completely reverse the bacteria makeup in our guts, but we can definitely take steps to improve it. In one study, a healthy diet helped 49 overweight people who were lacking diverse gut bacteria. When the subjects ate a healthy diet, researchers found that their gut bacteria became more diverse—and looked more like the gut bacteria in lean people.
How Can We Change Our Gut Bacteria Makeup to Lose Weight?
While research in this area is still new, researchers have come up with several solutions to help you start diversifying your gut bacteria and improving its overall makeup.
The first solution is to eliminate (or at least decrease) foods from your diet that contribute to an unhealthy gut. This includes refined carbohydrates, which are plant-based foods that have had the whole grain extracted. White and plain wheat breads are refined; 100% whole wheat bread is not. Rice, cereal, and pasta that are not whole grain also fit in this category.
You should also avoid sugary foods like candy and soda, and processed foods—which is almost anything that comes from a box or bag. You’ll know something has been chemically processed if you look at the nutrition facts and see lots of ingredients you don’t recognize.
Fortunately, there are plenty of foods you can still eat that will contribute to a healthy gut. Fermentable fibers—fibers that ferment in the large intestine—will help digestion. You can find fermentable fiber in yams, leeks, onion, garlic, wheat, and bananas.
Many fruits and vegetables such as blueberries and broccoli can also improve digestion and metabolism. Making most of your diet plant-based rather than processed food-based will go a long way to improving the makeup of your gut.
Researchers have also emphasized the importance of probiotics. Foods and supplements containing probiotics provide good bacteria that help you digest food. Yogurt, for example, contains lactobacillus, which can reduce diarrhea and help you digest lactose.
What Can I Do Now?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. Just take these small steps:
Eat more vegetables.
Eat whole grain foods.
Eat foods rich in fiber.
Avoid processed foods and sugar as much as possible.
Talk to your doctor about taking a probiotic supplement.
Talk to your doctor about more steps you can take to improve your gut health. Over time, these steps may help you lose weight and lower your risk of diabetes and other diseases.
Remember, gut bacteria isn’t the only factor that affects weight gain and obesity. Since everyone is different, you should visit a weight loss clinic for advice tailored to your needs. A professional can help you come up with a weight loss plan that’s best for you.