- Recent studies have shown stark differences in gut bacteria composition between children following a largely vegetarian diet (specifically in Africa) and those following a standard Western diet.
- A western diet, which is high in sugars, fats, and meats, is linked to an increase in obesity-linked microbes and a decrease in anti-inflammatory fatty acids in the gut.
- These dietary habits potentially predispose children to obesity and allergies as they grow older, adding to the increasing evidence pointing towards detrimental effects of the Western diet on health.
- Despite improvements in hygiene and medical practices, shifts in dietary practices have led to an increase in allergic and autoimmune conditions, emphasizing the vital role of diet in maintaining health.
- The study suggests that dietary factors may play a more significant role than sanitation, geography, and climate in determining gut microflora constitution.
Recently, a remarkable set of observations have shed light on the startling correlations between the diets children are exposed to and the composition of their gut bacteria. Specifically, the study focuses on the stark contrast between African children following predominantly vegetarian diets and European children consuming the typical Western diet.
Western Diet and Its Consequences
A study conducted by Italian researchers has reported diverging gut bacterial compositions between children from an African village who maintain largely vegetarian diets and are breastfed up to age 2, and European city children who consume a Western diet and have roughly half the breastfeeding duration.
Most notably, the gut bacteria populating the digestive tracts of the Western diet-following children could potentially predispose them to obesity and allergies as they grow older. While obesity and allergy levels were not directly evaluated in this study, this new set of findings adds to the increasing pile of evidence suggesting the potential harmful effects of Western diets on health.
In our modern world fraught with favor for cost-effective, hassle-free meals, we are seeing an increase in health issues related to our dietary habits, notes Mario Ciani, chair of natural science at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. This, coupled with our tendency to opt for convenience over health benefits in our eating habits, contributes to the rise of allergic reactions, adds Marianne Grant, a registered dietitian and health educator at Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center in Corpus Christi.
The Bacterial Balance
The gut hosts vast numbers and diverse kinds of “friendly” microbes that aid in the digestion and assimilation of nourishment obtained from food. As human lifestyle evolved over time, from a nomadic existence to settled agricultural communities, the gut flora underwent significant changes that potentially paved the path for an increased incidence of diseases.
Additional reshaping of gut fauna took place with the advent of antibiotics, vaccines, and improved hygiene practices during the twentieth century. These historical shifts in human lifestyle and medical practices coincide with the rise in allergic and autoimmune conditions.
In this study, the researchers from the University of Florence analyzed fecal samples from 15 healthy children from the village of Nanoro, in West Africa’s Burkina Faso, and an equal number of children from the city of Florence. All the examined children were within the age range of one to six and had abstained from antibiotics and probiotics for at least six months. The researchers also considered the children’s dietary information as provided by their parents.
The rural village of Nanoro was chosen due to its relative isolation and the inhabitants’ diet comprising cereals, legumes, and vegetables with minimal meat protein, closely resembling the diet of our Neolithic ancestors.
As expected, Italian children had a higher sugar, fat, and meat intake, consuming more total calories than their African equivalents. DNA analysis of the differentially fed children revealed that Italian children possessed more obesity-linked microbes and fewer fatty acids, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Overall, the Western children presented less microbial diversity within their gut.
This insight suggests that dietary factors may trump sanitation, geography, and climate when determining gut microflora constitution.
Previous Notions and Findings
Earlier studies have broached the problematic influence of the Western lifestyle on gut microflora. One such research posed the idea that the bacterial mix in an infant’s gut might predict whether the child is likely to become overweight or obese in the future. Furthermore, it has been noted that infants administered antibiotics are more susceptible to developing asthma.
“Our bodies still bear traces of our hunter-gatherer ancestry. We ought to be consuming more fruits and vegetables and integrating more physical activity into our routines,” Grant advices. “Obtaining meat used to involve hunting, cleaning, and cooking. Nowadays, a fast-food drive-through can satiate these cravings instantly. This shift in lifestyle speaks volumes about our modern dietary habits.”
To gain more insight into how the digestive tract operates, you can visit the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.