Could Probiotics Prevent Obesity?

Preliminary findings link gut bacteria to being overweight

What’s inside your gut may determine whether you have one. You’ve heard of probiotics—good-for-you bacteria that help keep your digestive tract happy and healthy. Well, preliminary research presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) this week suggests that they could be the answer to the obesity epidemic. Before you go chugging yogurt drinks in the pursuit of thinness, take note: the research is still very much in its early stages and there’s no solid evidence yet that probiotics found in those foods can ward off weight gain.

Here’s what we do know: According to researcher Margaret Zupancic, Ph.D., at the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the organisms that live in our intestines and help break down food are different in people with genes that predispose them to obesity. In her research, Zupancic found that people with the obesity gene usually had a low level of bacterial diversity in their digestive tract.

“Results such as these could lead to probiotic- or antibiotic-based treatments for obesity that could be individualized based on a person's unique genetic and gut microbial makeup," said Zupancic in a statement.

Another study presented alongside hers at the ASM Meeting found that the intestinal microorganisms of obese children were better than those of normal-weight kids at converting food into energy. Translation: Even though they’re eating the same amount, people genetically predisposed to obesity may get rid of less food through waste, converting it into fat and taking in up to10 percent more calories. Though more research is needed, this could suggest that people with obesity genes may not need as much food as the rest of us. That may sound terribly unfair, but it would actually be quite useful during times of famine— which, some researchers speculate, may be where the obesity gene comes from. Called the thrifty gene hypothesis, it suggests that the obesity gene evolved over time to help people survive a food shortage .

Nowadays most people have access to more food than they can handle, which means we have to constantly monitor our calorie intake to make sure we’re eating fewer than we’re burning. Every extra calorie we take in that doesn’t get burned off gets stored as fat, even if that extra calorie comes from a piece of spinach or celery stick. One of the study’s researchers, Amanda Payne of the Institute of Food Health and Nutrition in Zurich, Switzerland, says she hopes that their findings will lead to probiotic treatments that reduce the amount of calories obese people extract from food. However, she doesn’t want this to be seen as a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. "The importance of a balanced diet and regular exercise should not be discounted,” says Payne. The best strategy to prevent obesity remains getting plenty of exercise and keeping your calories in check.

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