Is Obesity Doom Escapable?

Good News and Bad  NewsThe possibility that obesity is predetermined in the womb is disheartening. Even worse, it appears that fate is set for us by trillions of microorganisms. Because we serve as their luxury apartment buildings, they may cooperate in keeping us alive, but beyond that, they pretty much have their own agendas.

A human host gets along best when her or his collection of microbiota combines the utmost diversity with a peaceful equality. When something causes an imbalance, and too many bugs of one kind proliferate, the symptoms show up in the human. Among those symptoms, according to this paradigm, are eating disorders and obesity. It is even possible that addiction originates with the activities of the gut bacteria. A field of science so relatively unexplored could have anything up its sleeve.

This proposition is both bad and good. Bad, because we don’t get to choose the gut microbiome we are born with or acquire soon after birth. Its composition can depend on a lot of factors, none of them under our control. However, it begins to look as if quite a lot is under a mother’s control, so a pregnant woman with good intentions can exercise considerable power. We have spoken before of Columbia University’s Dr. Noel T. Mueller, who is very interested in the effects of the state of imbalance called dysbiosis. Apparently, dysbiosis can set a person on a bad trajectory, which is what counselors in other healing professions call a “path.”

Dysbiosis Is Imbalance

Scientists like Mueller worry that dysbiosis can set a child on a bad path—bad because it becomes increasingly difficult to course-correct as the person ages. It has long been known that once childhood obesity gains a foothold, over time it becomes more difficult to expunge.

The same is true of the establishment of a sturdy microbiome. There is an “early-life window,” after which change becomes exponentially more difficult, although seldom impossible. But certain researchers are intent on discovering just how soon an intervention can be slipped through that window, if need be. In a wide-ranging interview published in the journal Childhood Obesity, Mueller said:

The importance of this critical early-life window in shaping the gut microbiome is the primary reason why my work is currently focused on understanding the determinants of the maternal-offspring exchange of microbiota, and how we can leverage knowledge generated from this research to reduce practices that perturb the natural assembly of the gut microbiota.

The best news is that is that bacterial diversity can, to a certain extent, be achieved. Even when a baby has not been blessed with a good healthy population of beneficial bugs right from the start, breastfeeding can compensate for a lot. Michael Pollan has explained the usefulness of the oligosaccharides in breast milk, which nourish a class of creatures known as Bifidobacterium infantis, about which he says:

When all goes well, the bifidobacteria proliferate and dominate, helping to keep the infant healthy by crowding out less savory microbial characters before they can become established and, perhaps most important, by nurturing the integrity of the epithelium — the lining of the intestines, which plays a critical role in protecting us from infection and inflammation.

For Scientific American, Claudia Wallis reported on the work of Rob Knight and Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello (of the University of Colorado and New York University, respectively) who have tracked what happens in the birth canal.  She also inquired about the significance of a related Canadian study and learned:

Babies drinking formula have bacteria in their gut that are not seen in breast-fed babies until solid foods are introduced. Their presence before the gut and immune system are mature, says Dominguez-Bello, may be one reason these babies are more susceptible to allergies, asthma, eczema and celiac disease, as well as obesity.

But even a child who has started out along the path of dysbiosis can still reach for hope, as researchers learn how healthy balance can be attained later in life through diet or other means. This conscious building of a robust microbiome is called restoration, and Dr. Mueller, among many others, believes that “restoration approaches may hold promise for preventing childhood obesity in the future.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Gut Microbiome and Childhood Obesity: Connecting the Dots,”, June 2015
Source: “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs.”, 05/15/13
Source: “How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin,”, 06/01/14
Image by Mike Licht

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