Gut feeling

Around this time of year many people decide it's time to do something about all of the food they ate during the holidays and often resolve to either eat healthier or lose weight. Professor Jill Parnell

Those that struggle with weight gain often wish they had a "magic bullet" that could easily help melt away the pounds and the bulges that accompany the indulgences we all take during the holiday season.

Unfortunately, no one remedy exists. However, Associate Professor Jill Parnell from the Department of Physical Education and Recreation Studies is conducting research on microorganisms that live in everyone's digestive tracts and how they impact obesity.

Those microorganisms and the collective bacteria that live in humans' intestines are called gut flora or gut microflora, and Parnell hopes learning more about them will lead to an effective treatment for obesity, unlike the many products like cleanses and diet drinks that exist on the market.

Building on research

Parnell's studies - which is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and an internal grant from Mount Royal's Office of Research - have shown there are specific types of gut microflora that contribute to both obesity and lean body types.

"The basic premise is that the type of bacteria that live in the gut can actually promote the development of obesity or promote the development of maintaining a lean mass," Parnell says.

"Researchers have looked at rats that they raised without having any bacteria in their guts, so they've specially designed rats that don't have any bacteria that live in their gut at all and they take those rats and give them bacteria from obese rats and they become obese, but if they give those rats bacteria from a lean rat they stay lean," Parnell explains.

According to Parnell everyone has both types of bacteria in their guts.

"Each person has their own unique profile, so everybody has all of these bacteria that live in their gut, unless you get sick and that throws it off," she says, "But what is different isn't the types but the proportions."

Studies like those conducted by Parnell have shown obese people have an increased amount of a certain type of gut microflora as opposed to the type that is more prevalent in leaner people.

Is heredity a factor?

Like many other things it's difficult to say whether heredity plays a role in the amount of the different types of gut microflora we each have.

"It's always really hard to flesh out what's genetics and what's environment," Parnell says. "You obviously have a similar genetic makeup as your parents … but you also live in a similar environment and you likely eat similar foods.

"They do know your initial bacterial colonization occurs in the actual birthing process it's where you first get the bacteria, so depending on the microflora your mother has at that point can effect it as well as the breast milk can definitely affect what types grow there."

Changing profiles: pro vs. pre

So the million dollar question is, if you know that you are a person that has a higher profile of these gut microflora that are conducive to more obese body types, what can you do to decrease those levels, while increasing the levels of the lean mass producing bacteria?

"You can absolutely change the profile of your gut bacteria, and it doesn't just affect obesity as well. There are all kinds of gastrointestinal diseases associated with this, as well as there's quite a strong link to things like liver disease and cardiovascular disease, all of those are linked to obesity," Parnell says.

Nowadays there are many new natural health foods appearing in stores that promote good stomach health.

"Eating probiotic yogurts is one way to increase the proportion of healthy bacteria that live in the gut and decrease the proportion of harmful bacteria, so that's one way to do it," says Parnell.

Parnell's research is looking at prebiotic fibre that is a food source for the healthy types of bacteria.

"It creates a nice happy environment where there's lot of food for the good ones to grow so we try to promote the growth of the ones that are already healthy and that are already there," she says. "When more of those grow they sort of nudge out the bad ones."

The disadvantage of probiotics, which is essentially attempting to provide your gut with the healthy bacteria, is that they have to survive all of the acid in your stomach and get all the way through your gastrointestinal tract to your colon alive and healthy and able to grow.

Eating to be thin

Prebiotic fibre does occur naturally in our diets.

"It's found in onions, garlic and chicory root … so there is a little bit in our North American diet, but not heaps, much more in European and Indian diets," says Parnell.

There are more products that are hitting the market that can help however. Parnell says for example, the Fibre One bars contain prebiotic fibre and Dempster's makes a prebiotic bread.

Products that advertise high fibre would have prebiotics.

Parnell says it is actually very sweet and can be used as a sugar substitute, which has some obvious advantages.

In general Parnell has seen an increase in interest of natural remedies and treatments for a number of different diseases.

"Because there are really no effective drugs on the market for the treatment of obesity, interest in natural solutions is on the rise," she says.

Ultimately, Parnell hopes her research will lead to better treatments for not only obesity itself, but also diseases that result from it as well.

- Fred Cheney, Jan. 11, 2011