Leverage the microbes in your digestive tract

New research shows that while the microbes in your digestive tract may not directly cause you to gain or lose weight, they are thought to influence your metabolism and serve as mediators between your lifestyle choices and your body weight.

The ecosystem within

Communities of tiny living organisms exist in different habitats of the human body. The most complex microbial ecosystem on the human body is found in the digestive tract, especially within the colon.

Your gut microbes on a crash diet

Drastically restricting certain foods on a temporary basis—otherwise known as “crash dieting”—is a typical strategy for weight loss. But such extreme short-term strategies could end up backfiring.

One study found overweight mice that had successfully slimmed down through dieting developed a persistent gut microbiota pattern that actually contributed to faster weight regain once they resumed a normal diet. Furthermore, the extent of the animals’ weight regain after the crash diet was predictable, based on how their gut microbiota looked.

All this to say: you’re probably better off foregoing drastic dietary changes and sticking to lifestyle changes you can maintain in the long run.

Shaping your gut microbiota for weight management

Even if gut microbes don’t directly dictate the number on the bathroom scale, we may be able to leverage them to help us achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Here’s how to get your gut microbiome to support you and your weight management goals.

Mind your diet

Through diet, we may shape our gut microbes in a way that facilitates a healthy weight: fiber (think vegetables, fruits, and whole grains) is paramount.

In general, a diversity of plant foods—30 or more types per week—promotes a diverse, well-functioning gut microbiota, while large amounts of red meat and processed foods (especially those containing emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners) are believed to have a detrimental effect on the gut microbiota.

Maintain cardiorespiratory fitness

Exercise is a well-known way to keep weight in check, and recent evidence suggests that higher cardiorespiratory fitness in humans goes hand-in-hand with gut microbiota diversity and health-promoting gut microbiota functions.

Aim to keep stress to a minimum

Healthy eating is notoriously difficult when an individual is experiencing stress; moreover, the body’s stress response induces intestinal permeability. Research on the microbiota-gut-brain axis has shown the gut microbiota changes in association with different stressors. It pays off, weight-wise, to manage stress and mental health as much as possible.

The exciting new area of science linking gut microbes with health could, over time, yield ways to manipulate microbial ecosystems for targeted health effects, offering each one of us personalized strategies for weight management based on our unique collection of gut microbes.