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Get Gutsy!

With all the competing commercial interests clamoring for our eyeballs and wallets - especially in the food arena - it's no wonder Americans are confused about what's healthy to eat and what's not. We obsess about eating enough protein, for instance, yet tragically, our OVERconsumption of animal protein significantly raises our risk of dying from all causes and specifically from heart disease, our #1 killer (1).

We DO face one serious nutritional deficiency, however, not from protein but from FIBER, for which 97% of Americans don't meet even HALF the minimum daily requirement (at 32/g) (2). Since the only source of dietary fiber is plants, our fiber deficiency exists because we eat such paltry amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and mushrooms.

So why's fiber so important? That fiber facilitates digestion & elimination is not new news. We've known that eating fiber provides satiety, helping us lose weight. But fiber's role in human health is far more pervasive than we once thought. And it all has to do with our recent ability to analyze the human microbiome, which requires ample quantities of fiber to sustain healthy and diverse microbial colonies (3).

The microbiome is a diverse ecosystem of 100 trillion bacterial, viral and fungal microbes, mostly residing in the gut, that coevolved with early homo sapiens and became inextricably involved with the functioning of many of our human metabolic processes.

Though more research needs to occur to understand the mechanisms at work, we are beginning to learn how pivotal gut bacteria are to human health and disease. A few examples:

  • Gut bacteria develop and train our immune system, determining how ably we can fight infections, avoid asthma and allergies, and stave off cancer (4).

  • Pathogenic bacteria can activate systemic inflammation, raising our risks for metabolic disorders like obesity, diabetes and atherosclerosis. If beneficial bacteria dominate, they protect us from these inflammatory disorders (5).

  • Gut bacteria appears to be linked to the onset of neurological disorders like Alzheimers Disease (6), and solving this puzzle may provide new treatment options to prevent this devastating disease.

  • Gut bacteria manufacture neurotransmitters that travel from gut to brain, directly influencing mood and behavior and holding promise for new ways to treat depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, & autism. (7,8)

Choosing your Friends

The diversity and quantities of bacteria we harbor may have a profound impact on health. And what foods we eat determine whether bacteria that hold sway are more protective or destructive. Beneficial bacteria thrive on FIBER and RESISTANT STARCHES, found only in plants. They produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which promote health in remarkable ways: They lower systemic inflammation and oxidative stress. They optimize our immune defenses, protecting us from cancer. They sustain the delicate epithelial cell lining in the small intestine to prevent dysbiosis which can trigger a plethora of autoimmune diseases (9).

On the other hand, when our diets are deficient in fiber and centered on animal proteins, populations of bacteria that digest sulfur-rich animal amino acids increase. While most protein is digested in the small intestine, a small amount can reach the colon where it putrefies. There the bacteria that thrive on sulfur produce hydrogen sulfide (the rotten egg smelling gas) which has several deleterious health effects: It inflames the delicate epithelial intestinal cell lining, making us vulnerable to ulcerative colitis and Crohn's Disease (10); it's toxic to DNA, raising the risking of colon cancer (11); it promotes atherosclerosis (12).

In addition, when we eat animal protein we increase the prevalence of gut bacteria that metabolize carnitine and choline found in meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, fish and seafood into toxic TMAO, which builds up cholesterol in the inflammatory cells of atherosclerotic plaques in our arteries (13,14).