By Shawn Portwood and Alicia Wildman
December 13, 2017
The human digestive tract is an amazing organ system, it helps us break down food, absorb nutrients, and provides over 70% of our immune functions and that’s just from the bacteria found in our intestines. The bacteria, or biota, located within are so unique, one might even call them our own digestive finger print. So, how can we eat this holiday season to feed these critters and optimize how they work for us?
First a background, there are two major classes of bacteria found in our gastrointestinal tract (GIT). These include Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, trust me there’s way more but that’s a topic for another day. These two classes play very different roles in utilizing the foods we eat, each special in their own ways. So, let’s dive in!
Firmicutes could be labeled as the super villain of the gut biota. When this phylum of bacteria is in a higher proportional ratio compared to what might be called “the good guys” –Bacteroidetes, it has been shown to create a dysbacteriosis of the gut. In other words, if you have too many firmicutes and your gut colony is out of whack then you have a potentially higher risk for gaining weight and struggling to lose it. So, what foods tend to feed this beast colony of firmicutes? There is some research that shows these little bugs thrive in people with a diet that is high in both fats and sugars. One of the driving functions of firmicutes is to break down fatty acids for storage for use as a viable and quick energy source for the host (that’s us!). So, if you have a high percentage of them in your large intestine, a lot more of the food you ingest is going to be broken down and stored in your intestinal cells.
Studies show that once you have established whom the ALPHA bacterial phyla is, be it Bacteroidetes or Firmicutes, how you retain caloric density gets sorted one way or another. If Firmicutes tend to be favored in your gut fight club than you have a much higher tendency to retain and absorb broken down fats, carbs and proteins that are turned into Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) to be used as energy. However, if, as mentioned, you have a ton of these overachieving bugs you will retain too much energy and doing that for years on end can cause obesity to be the result. So, are firmicutes truly super villains or are they simply just too good at their job?
Foods of plant origin contain fiber, something we simply cannot get from meat, eggs, or milk. The vegetables, fruits, grains, and seeds we eat all contain a variety of fibers. Some are digestible by our own bodies and some are indigestible. For the fibers our bodies cannot break down, we rely on the bacteria in our GIT to lend us a hand. Bacteroidetes have the special ability to break down glycans or huge links of carbs that we would not otherwise be able to use. The indigestible fiber we get from our diet not only feed these bacteria and keeps them in working order, but the by-products of this breakdown feed the cells in our GIT and keep our digestion in working order.
Bacteroidetes also have the ability to break down yeast that we get from food most notably found in bread, wine, and beer. This is so awesome because yeast is known to have a protective layer covering its cells that makes it nearly impossible to break down without the help of our little bacterial friends. Essentially, filling your plate with more fruits and veggies can keep other bugs in check.
One of the coolest things about this class of bacteria is that it can thrive in environments within and outside of the body and tends to be found on the fiber known as hemicellulose found in plants. This means, the more plant sources of food we consume the greater the amount of Bacteroidetes that make it into our bodies and the better we can utilize nutrients from these types of foods. These bugs contain a strong ability to adapt to a varied diet, and rely on a mix of items on your plate.
Now for the holiday cheer! If you are thinking, “Darn! I can’t drink any egg nog because it’s high in sugars AND fats,” or, “what about those cookies made with butter?” Relax! This is the time of the year to enjoy time with friends, family and loved ones. So, enjoy the cookies and egg nog. Just try to focus on nourishing the Bacteroidetes at the majority of your meals this season to ensure they are fully fed, equipped and ready to wage war on keeping a symbiotic balance with their nemesis: the Firmicutes. Then once the party begins, indulge a bit because remember we are ALL one happy family, and that includes the Firmicutes! We just don’t want too many of them hanging around into the New Year!
To feed your Firmicutes make sure to practice mindful eating with:
- A slice of maple bourbon pecan pie
- An extra scoop of candied yams topped with a dollop of butter (the real stuff not margarine!)
- And what holiday dinner is complete without some slices of honey baked ham with brown butter glaze!
- Oven roasted carrots with herbs
- Brussel sprout salad with pecans and cranberries
- And what the heck, throw some green bean casserole on your plate!
If you liked this article, take a peek at some of the studies that helped us put this together for you:
MSU Denver student bios:
Alicia Wildman is a senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver about to complete her BSc in Human Nutrition and Dietetics. She plans to apply for a few distance internships for the Spring 2018 match and after becoming a Registered Dietitian, go on to pursue a Master’s and PhD. in biochemistry. She hopes to use her education to expand future research on the science of food. In her free time she enjoys hiking, yoga, and art as great stress relievers.
Shawn Portwood is a senior at Metro State University of Denver pursuing his BSc in Dietetics with a minor in biology and emphasis in microbiology. His long term plans are to obtain his RD credentials as well as pursue a PhD in nutritional biology to research the microbiome. He is also a certified personal trainer (NASM CPT) and corrective exercise specialist (NASM CES). In his free time, he loves reading, training for endurance races and is obsessed with Star Wars.