How research on the human gut microbiome reinforces the need to support diverse, sustainable food systems.
By Dani Lee, MPH Nutrition candidate
The microbiota (microorganisms that occupy a specific niche) is a current buzz word in the scientific community, and an area of hot new research in world of nutrition. In researching how diet and environmental factors shape the human gut microbiota- key players in health outcomes such as malnutrition, allergies, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, autism, immunity and so much more- many of us are starting to wonder if we have hit the holy grail of nutrition. Quite possibly!
But, most importantly, this research is continuing to reinforce two things we as a public health nutrition community have been promoting for years:
(1) balanced and varied diets comprised of lean proteins, healthy fats and high in high-fiber, complex carbohydrates from plant-based food sources, and
(2) a need for policies that promote a more sustainable food system.
Daphne Miller, MD, family physician and Associate Profesor at the University of California, San Francisco, recently spoke at the UC Berkeley Global Public Health Symposium on the importance of traditional diets and sustainable, small scale food production systems supporting healthy, balanced and diverse gut microbiota. Miller also wrote a piece about the need to protect soil ecology to promote better gut health in Yes! Magazine, in which she explores her “dirty thoughts”-arguing that quite possibly, it is where our food grows, more so than the food itself, that supplies us with powerful healing properties. She explores the topic further in her most recent book, .
Lee Riley, MD, Professor of Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, recently published an article on the potential influence of antibiotics within our food system on promoting imbalance, or dysbiosis, of our gut ecology and ultimately contributing to the rising prevalence of obesity in the US. Not a surprising hypothesis given the fact that approximately 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the US are used for sub-theraputeic purposes in livestock and poultry. Riley’s hypothesis is also being explored by Dr. Martin J. Blaser, the director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University, and was recently discussed in and opioning piece by Pagan Kennedy in the New York Times.
The sheer volume of new findings coming out every day in the area of gut microbiota research is exciting, encouraging and overwhelming at the same time. The growing body of research about the human microbiome (the collective genomes of the microorganisms) highlights the need for us to view the human body through an ecological lense.
Currently, we are consuming the earth’s resources at an increasingly unsustainable rate – equivalent to one and a half planet’s worth. Of greatest interest to me at the cross section of the human microbiome and nutrition is research supporting the need for a global shift to more sustainable consumption patterns-specifically, the development of more sustainable agricultural production methods and food system practices that support and protect ecosystem diversity instead of destroying it.
Microbiome research shows that human bodies host diverse ecosystems. The diversity and balance of these ecosystems play a large role in our overall health. As humans, we are part of a larger, global ecosystem, and our actions to support the health of our planet’s ecosystem will ultimately impact the health of our body’s ecosystems.