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 People have asked me if eating sweet desserts or hamburgers is bad for the health if the rest of their diet is good - with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans), and nuts (much like the Mediterranean diet). My sense over the past few years of looking at the research is that one should look at the overall diet, and that a "perfect diet" all the time is pretty darn hard to achieve, if not impossible, for most of us. So this new research looking at gut bacteria and "chemical fingerprints of cellular processes" (by looking at stool and urine samples) of people eating different diets (vegan, vegetarian, omnivore) was reassuring.  The findings suggest: make sure to feed your beneficial bacteria with a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet (lots of plant-based foods), and then some deviation (cookies! steak!) is OK.

The researchers found that while the kind of gut bacteria dominating were different among the groups (vegan, vegetarian, omnivores), they also found that eating a lot of fiber-rich foods, such as fruit, vegetables, and legumes (typical of a Mediterranean diet) is linked to a rise in health promoting short chain fatty acids (SCFA). Yes, levels of trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) (which is linked to cardiovascular disease) were significantly lower in vegetarians and vegans than they were in those of the omnivores. But the more omnivores closely followed a Mediterranean diet, the lower were their TMAO levels.(Which is great!). As the researchers said: "Western omnivore diets are not necessarily detrimental when a certain consumption level of plant foods is included. From Science Daily:

High dietary fiber intake linked to health promoting short chain fatty acids

Eating a lot of fibre-rich foods, such as fruit, vegetables, and legumes--typical of a Mediterranean diet--is linked to a rise in health promoting short chain fatty acids, finds research published online in the journal Gut. And you don't have to be a vegetarian or a vegan to reap the benefits, the findings suggest.

Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which include acetate, propionate, and butyrate, are produced by bacteria in the gut during fermentation of insoluble fibre from dietary plant matter. SCFAs have been linked to health promoting effects, including a reduced risk of inflammatory diseases, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

The researchers gathered a week's information on the typical daily diet of 153 adults who either ate everything (omnivores, 51), or were vegetarians (51), or vegans (51), and living in four geographically distant cities in Italy....The Mediterranean diet is characterised by high intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and cereals; moderately high intake of fish; regular but moderate alcohol consumption; and low intake of saturated fat, red meat, and dairy products. Most (88%) of the vegans, almost two thirds of the vegetarians (65%), and around a third (30%) of the omnivores consistently ate a predominantly Mediterranean diet.

The investigation showed distinct patterns of microbial colonisation according to usual dietary intake. Bacteroidetes were more abundant in the stool samples of those who ate a predominantly plant based diet, while Firmicutes were more abundant in those who ate a predominantly animal products diet. Both these categories of organisms (phyla) contain microbial species that can break down complex carbohydrates, resulting in the production of SCFAs.

Specifically, Prevotella and Lachnospira were more common among the vegetarians and vegans while Streptococcus was more common among the omnivores. And higher levels of SCFA were found in vegans, vegetarians, and those who consistently followed a Mediterranean dietLevels of SCFAs were also strongly associated with the quantity of fruit, vegetables, legumes, and fibre habitually consumed, irrespective of the type of diet normally eaten.

On the other hand, levels of trimethylamine oxide (TMAO)--a compound that has been linked to cardiovascular disease--were significantly lower in the urine samples of vegetarians and vegans than they were in those of the omnivores. But the more omnivores closely followed a Mediterranean diet, the lower were their TMAO levels, the analysis showed.

TMAO levels were linked to the prevalence of microbes associated with the intake of animal proteins and fat, including L-Ruminococcus (from the Lachnospiraceae family). Eggs, beef, pork and fish are the primary sources of carnitine and choline--compounds that are converted by gut microbes into trimethylamine, which is then processed by the liver and released into the circulation as TMAO.

The researchers point out that SCFA levels can naturally vary as a result of age and gender, and their study did not set out to establish any causal links. But they nevertheless suggest that the Mediterranean diet does seem to be associated with the production of health promoting SCFAs. They conclude: "We provide here tangible evidence of the impact of a healthy diet and a Mediterranean dietary pattern on gut microbiota and on the beneficial regulation of microbial metabolism towards health maintenance in the host." And they add: "Western omnivore diets are not necessarily detrimental when a certain consumption level of [plant] foods is included."

Avoid artificial sweeteners! From Scientific American:

Artificial Sweeteners May Have Despicable Impacts on Gut Microbes

I find it ironic that Thanksgiving coincides with American Diabetes Month. In honor of that irony, two recently published studies have suggested a possible link between what you eat, how it impacts the behavior of the microbes living in your gut, and type II diabetes.

Results from a study by researchers in Israel, published in the journal Nature in October, have suggested that consumption of artificial sweeteners—found in over 6,000 food products—can lead to changes in the gut microbiome, and have put forth an explanation for how this alteration might be associated with diseases such as type II diabetes.

Jotham Suez, a PhD candidate and lead author of the study explains, “We asked people who do not regularly consume artificial sweeteners to add them to their diet for one week, and saw that the majority of these subjects had poorer glycemic responses.”And like humans, mice that were given saccharin-spiked water also developed marked glucose intolerance compared to mice drinking sugar water, or water alone.

Their experiment revealed that mice did exhibit different microbiome profiles after consuming artificial sweeteners, just as with the human volunteers who had developed glucose intolerance. And importantly, the humans who did not show glucose intolerance after consuming artificial sweeteners also did not see changes in the community composition of their microbiome.

Consequently, this change in microbial community in mice also modified how the microbiota functioned as a group to regulate metabolism. Pathways that impact the transport of sugar in the body were found to have decreased function after saccharin treatment and, notably, there was an increased abundance of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are implicated in lipid biosynthesis.

An investigation done by an independent group of researchers in Canada found similar results in a study published in October in the journal PLoS ONE. Although conducted using rats instead of mice, and with a different artificial sweetener (aspartame instead of saccharin) this study also found an increased risk of glucose intolerance. In addition, both studies showed that propionate—a SCFA highly involved in sugar production—is increased in animals consuming artificial sweeteners (although, unfortunately, propionate concentrations in humans weren’t assessed in the Nature study).

But the take home point is this: findings from two independent studies suggest that messing with the microbiome may have despicable consequences. Artificial sweeteners were originally intended to stave off the increasing obesity and metabolic disease epidemic, but instead they may have directly contributed to it.

In other words, consuming artificial sweeteners appears to throw metabolism out of whack by upsetting the critical balance of the biota in the gut—just as how chaos would surely ensue if you were to throw Gru’s minions out of whack.