New Insights About a Healthy Microbiome – Why Personalized Diets Will Be a Big Thing

An artists rendering of a healthy gut microbiome

There’s been a great deal written about gut health and our microbiome in recent years, including revelations about how our overall wellness is linked to a healthy microbiome. But despite some insight, the little we know pales in comparison to what we have yet to learn. Trillions of microbes line our gastrointestinal tracts. But to date, scientists and researchers are only familiar with a few. Even among those we do know, it’s unclear how they affect health or how we acquire them. For this reason, many researcher centers are getting together to make progress in this area.

Many experts believe knowledge about the microbiome will create a revolution in personalized diets. If information about which foods promote a healthy microbiome could be gained, shifts in eating habits could occur. In turn, this could then lead to a reduced risk of various health conditions. Interestingly, early results from a major research project are beginning to provide such information. And thus far, the findings are both exciting and surprising. Though just the tip of the iceberg, these results show why personalized diets will be the future of health.

The PREDICT Program Trials

The latest research in healthy microbiome science involves the PREDICT Program, a multicenter research collaboration. PREDICT stands for Personalized Responses to Dietary Composition Trials. The research program was the brainchild of Tim Spector, a British epidemiologist and was started in 2018. Participants in the program include King’s College in London, Harvard University, the University of Trento in Italy and others. In essence, PREDICT is the largest research project in the world designed to look at personalized diets and their effect. The study involves around 1,100 healthy adults from the U.S. and U.K. and is ongoing. The first major trial results, however, were just released.

The notable thing about the PREDICT program is the vast amount of data being collected from its participants. Researchers naturally collect dietary histories in order to gain knowledge of personalized diets of each individual. But also, they collect information about sleep patterns, physical activity, blood sugar, cholesterol, and inflammatory markers. And most importantly, they perform full genetic analyses on the participants’ stool samples. This is the data that identifies specific bacteria in the microbiome that can be compared to other measures. In total, researchers have already performed over 1,200 genomic sequences in the pursuit of this information.

The Difference Between an Unhealthy and Healthy Microbiome

For some time, health experts have known that an unhealthy microbiome is somehow linked to specific metabolic diseases. Conditions like obesity, diabetes, and secondary heart disease are examples of such conditions. (Read more about the relationship between heart disease and diet in this Project Bold Life story.) The question was which microbes determined an unhealthy versus a healthy microbiome. Likewise, they wondered if personalized diets could be used to promote a desirable group of bacteria. The PREDICT trials provides some answers in this regard. Analysis of the PREDICT data so far has identified 15 microbes linked to a healthy microbiome and 15 that aren’t.

When comparing these to the personalized diets of the participants, some important insights were gained. Those who ate unprocessed, whole foods that were high in fiber developed the more favorable bacteria. But those who ate processed foods that were high in sugar and salt had unhealthy microbes in their gastrointestinal tracts. In fact, researchers noted that fiber specifically appears to be an essential nutrient that healthy bacteria need. Overall, the evidence showed that the impact diet had on the actual microbiome was quite tremendous.

Additional Insights Gained from PREDICT

In addition to the type of diet that led to a healthy microbiome, the initial research has shown other interesting findings. For example, those with better personalized diets tended to have better blood glucose control, less cholesterol elevations, and less inflammation. (Learn more about the perils of inflammation in this Project Bold Life story.) Also, these same participants had less visceral fat on average, the kind that deposits around internal organs. All of these findings further supported the notion that diet plays a key role in better metabolic health. Simply by making better food choices, individuals can reduce their risk for developing a variety of metabolic disorders.

A healthy meal of tomatoes, avocado, chicken and quinoa
A personalized diet might be the best path to a healthy microbiome.

The researchers also realized that one type of diet does not fit everyone. While the above general rules apply, any two individuals respond differently to the same diet. If both eat well, then they will be more likely to enjoy a healthy microbiome. But they won’t have the identical set of microbes in their gastrointestinal tracts. Likewise, genetics does not explain these findings either. In the hundreds of twins in the study, only 34 percent of their microbiome was the same. This isn’t much different from unrelated individuals who tend to share 30 percent of their microbes in common. This further suggests food choices are important, supporting the idea that personalized diets offer significant health potential.

Personalized Diets in the Future

Over the next several years, additional information will be gained from the PREDICT program. Phase 2 and Phase 3 are proceeding, and this will reveal new insights about factors influencing a healthy microbiome. But even now, the writing is on the wall. The ability for researchers to test patients and determine microbiome contents will easily guide better eating habits. From the information gained already, we should be choosing whole foods, high-fiber foods, and unprocessed foods. But the ability to refine this even further in time will undoubtedly occur. This is where personalized diets will come into play.

In the future, it is quite likely you will be able to have your own microbiome determined from some relatively noninvasive tests. Based on the results, you could be able to gauge whether you have a heathy microbiome or not. If not, specific recommendations can be made that are unique to you. In all likelihood, these personalized diets will target specific foods. But they also may include natural supplements that foster a better microbial pattern. When it comes to preventative and restorative health, this is what the future will look like.

 

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