In Focus - Inner gut may be answer to big outer gut

Eat less, exercise more. This is a very common axiom, often offered by doctors, trainers and helpful friends to try to help struggling overweight people. I’ve even said it myself many times.

The problem is, research shows it simply does not work for most people. Furthermore, it might be psychologically damaging. In the 2015 documentary It Takes Guts, Dr. Arya Sharma, a University of Alberta researcher, compares it to telling a depressed person the answer to their problem ‘cheer up.’

It is perhaps a bit of an oversight not to have covered this episode of CBC’s The Nature of Things in this column. It was the winner of the Documentary Science/Nature/Technology Award at the 2016 Yorkton Film Festival, a category sponsored by Yorkton This Week.

In fact, I had the opportunity to fill in for then-publisher Neil Thom and present the Golden Sheaf myself.

The Nature of Things, of course, is a long-standing, award-winning CBC program. It is expected the journalistic quality and production values are going to be high, and they are. It is also expected, being it is David Suzuki’s vehicle, that there might be a subtle new-agey ideological undertone. However, it sticks pretty close to the science, as preliminary as it may be, with a few little nods to skepticism.

Spoiler alert: there are going to be spoilers in the rest of this column.

The premise here is pretty simple. There are good bacteria and bad bacteria. Humans are home to thousands of species and trillions of individual microbes most of which are essential to our very existence and a few others that have the potential to kill us. And, it is not so much that there are good guys and bad guys, but that the bacterial community as a whole is important.

It is called the microbiome and we have known for some time that it plays a role in our digestion. Just how big a role is becoming clearer with research and it is starting to look, as most things do the more we learn, that it is way more complex than we ever imagined.

For example, there is now good evidence that the flora in our gut actually might be communicating with our brains. Like all living things, these organisms, need to eat (so to speak) to survive. When they are hungry, they let us know, the theory goes. If we reach for the wrong food, they starve. If we do it long enough, some may go extinct. If we introduce antibiotics, it can unbalance the ecosystem.

From much of the research, it seems modern life itself may be creating imbalance. A diet of processed food rich in fat, carbohydrates and antibiotics (all the usual suspects) feeds the upper digestive tract, but neglects the lower, resulting in a less diverse microbiome and possibly a more obese person. Because their microbiome is compromised, it becomes nearly impossible to counteract the weight problem, scientists in the doc posit.

Obviously, I can’t do the topic full justice here in a short film review, which is why readers should look it up. CBC has its own player, but I’ve found YouTube is easier to use and more reliable.

There are some dubious experiments in this documentary. For example, one researcher actually gave himself a poop transplant from a member of the Hadza, an African tribe that still lives primitively and whose members, none of whom are fat, exhibit gut biomes with around double the diversity of the average westerner. Not only is that potentially dangerous as all his colleagues point out, but it did not yield any evidence, not even anecdotal, that it made him any healthier and even if it did, whether there is any widespread utility in such a treatment.

The preliminary research exposed in It Takes Guts has also led to a lot of pseudoscientific commerce. In my other column, Thinking Critically, I have written at length about the nonsense that is “probiotics” marketing. Where there is a kernel of truth and the potential to con people out of their money, there is a snake oil salesman waiting to go into business.

That is not to say, however, there is not a case to be made for a high-fibre diet (which does get to the lower gut, apparently), avoiding processed foods and eating a wide variety of food.

Even if the research pans out, as The Atlantic magazine’s science writer Ed Yong points out at the end of the film, it is not likely to lead to an obesity-crushing magic gut bacteria pill. He does see a lot of potential in manipulating microbiomes for personalized medicine that could dramatically help people with weight problems, however.

Bottom line? It is a fascinating film, well worth the 44-minute running time, and eminently worthy of its 2016 Golden Sheaf.

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