A thought-provoking article by Heiman and Greenway was just published in the journal Molecular Metabolism making the case that changes in farming practices over the last 50 years have resulted in decreased agricultural diversity which, in turn, has resulted in decreased dietary diversity, and that the reduction in dietary diversity has changed and decreased the richness of the human gut microbiota (microbes living in the gut). And meanwhile, during the past 50 years, the rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel diseases sharply increased - and in each of these conditions there is a reduction of the gut microbial diversity. Similar views have also been stated by others in the field of microbiology.
The thinking is that the more diverse the diet, the more diverse the gut microbiome (and healthier), and the more it can adapt to disturbances. Heiman and Greenway state: "Unfortunately, dietary diversity has been lost during the past 50 years because of economic pressures for greater food production to support a growing world population.... Of the 250,000 to 300,000 known edible plant species, humans use only 150 to 200...Today, 75 percent of the world's food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species."
Also, agricultural practices of using antibiotics as growth promoters for poultry, swine, and cattle further harm the human gut microbiome when the meat is ingested by humans, and pesticide residues on crops ingested by humans may have gut microbiome effects. Even emulsifiers, used in processed foods, reduce microbial richness. Every time a person goes on a certain diet (vegan, Paleo, etc) or makes dietary choices in which some foods are eliminated, it makes it easier for some microbial species, and gives them a competitive advantage over other gut microbes. From Science Daily:
Changes in farming practices over the last 50 years have resulted in decreased agro-diversity which, in turn, has resulted in decreased dietary diversity. The significant impact of this change in dietary richness on human health is an emerging topic for discussion
Heiman and Greenway describe how the reduction in dietary diversity has changed the richness of human gut microbiota, the community of microorganisms living in the gut. The researchers point out that healthy individuals have diverse gut microbiota and many of the common pathologies of the 21st century, including type 2 diabetes, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease, are associated with reduced microbiotic richness.
Gut microbiota function as an endocrine organ, metabolizing specific nutrients from the diet and producing specific substances that act as metabolic signals in the host. It follows then that highly specialized diets will change the landscape of the gut microbiome over time. In fact, it takes only a few days of changing diet to alter the microbiotic makeup of the human gut. And if the dietary change involves elimination of one or more macronutrients (think Atkins or Paleo or vegan), humans are essentially selecting for some microbiotic species over others.
The importance of microbiota diversity cannot be overstated. They produce an abundance of important molecules for the host and with increased variation comes increased adaptability and an increased range of physiological responses. "The greater the repertoire of signals, the more likely is the ability to maintain homeostasis when dietary intake is perturbed," explain Heiman and Greenway. "Furthermore, because each particular macronutrient has the potential to be metabolized by microbiota into unique metabolic signals, the greater the variety in signals, the greater the variety of responses possible."