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High levels of fats, salt and sugar found in the typical Western diet are responsible for fueling an epidemic of metabolic diseases, like diabetes and obesity.
That’s why nutritionists try to warn us away from the metabolic-disaster trifecta altogether…
But researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center have found that though fats, salt and sugar are the quickest recipe for poor health, one among them does the most damage at making your body ripe for metabolic disease…
The chain of events that leads to metabolic disease
After putting mice on a Western-style, high-fat, high-sugar diet and monitoring their microbiomes, researchers were not surprised to see characteristics of metabolic syndrome, including weight gain, insulin resistance and glucose intolerance — in just four weeks.
But what was most interesting was why these changes took place: The bad diet made dramatic changes in the mice’s guts that set off a sequence of events that created metabolic havoc…
Specifically, there was a significant decrease in the amount of segmented filamentous bacteria found in their guts. These bacteria, which are common in the microbiome of rodents, are vital due to their role in keeping levels of gut immune cells, known as Th17 cells, strong.
And those immune cells are the ones that prevent metabolic disease, diabetes and weight gain.
“These immune cells produce molecules that slow down the absorption of ‘bad’ lipids from the intestines and they decrease intestinal inflammation,” says Ivalyo Ivanov, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “In other words, they keep the gut healthy and protect the body from absorbing pathogenic lipids.”
So when the number of Th17 cells goes down, the risk of metabolic disease goes up.
But there was more…
“Sugar eliminates the filamentous bacteria, and the protective Th17 cells disappear as a consequence,” says Ivanov. “When we fed mice a sugar-free, high-fat diet, they retain the intestinal Th17 cells and were completely protected from developing obesity and pre-diabetes, even though they ate the same number of calories.”
So to be clear, the enemy doing the most damage was sugar — not fat—disrupting the microbiome to a point that it eliminated natural protection from obesity and diabetes.
Sugar: A key opportunistic player in metabolic syndrome
Based on what you’ve just learned, you might think that simply eliminating as much sugar from your diet as possible would keep metabolic disease at bay, right?
Well, here’s where it gets tricky…
The team discovered that eliminating sugar didn’t help all mice.
In fact, for reducing sugar intake to work, the mice had to have beneficial bacteria in their guts to start with.
“This suggests that some popular dietary interventions, such as minimizing sugars, may only work in people who have certain bacterial populations within their microbiota,” Ivanov says.
In these cases, the researchers believe that probiotics could be the key to better health and metabolic protection.
And although people don’t have the same filamentous bacteria as mice, the team is confident that a healthy and balanced human gut microbiome contains bacteria that should have the same protective effects.
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