Trust your gut: Don’t swallow hype about ‘microbiome’ and dietary gee-whiz

microbiome-300x150Trust your gut: If anyone hypes a diet to you, saying it’s beneficial because it’s somehow tailored to the makeup of your complex, prehistoric, and individual intestinal microbiome, just wink and walk off. You know better, right?

Healthnewsreview.org, the watchdog about accuracy of medical news reports, rightly has taken after the Wall Street Journal for its recent story headlined, “The Food that Helps Fight Depression.”

Writer Michael Joyce reported about the WSJ piece:

 ‘The right kind of diet may give the brain more of what it needs to avoid depression, or even to treat it once it’s begun.’ It’s a bold claim for which the story provides little in the way of compelling evidence. Experts we spoke to say the story goes way beyond the science in this emerging field.

Joyce says the newspaper relies on little or no solid research to assert that a “healthy diet” can “both prevent and treat depression.” The story, for example, makes much to do about a published Australian study that reported, “After 12 weeks, the people who improved their diets showed significantly happier moods than those who received social support. And the people who improved their diets the most improved the most.”

What’s the catch? This study involved only 67 people. How they improved their diets isn’t reported by the newspaper, other than to say half of the depressed research participants talked with a nutritionist. As for the “social support” component of this research, the Wall Street Journal says depressed subjects played cards or chatted with someone.

Allen Frances, a doctor and a former chairman of the psychiatry department at Duke University, told Healthnewsreview.org that patients should be wary of claims about nutrition and mental health, which is an important and developing area of study. But he noted:

‘The fact that almost no research has been done on the topic gives free rein to wildly speculative and potentially harmful hype. It makes great sense to have a healthy diet for many reasons but preventing or treating depression would not rate high among them. Except for a placebo effect, eating your way out of depression is likely to be an ineffective distraction from real treatment. By way of contrast, there is substantial evidence that exercise is effective.’

The newspaper also reported this curious nugget, tying the human microbiome to mental health:

A bad diet also affects our microbiome — the trillions of micro-organisms that live in our gut. They make molecules that can alter the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the brain, says Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist, nutritionist and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. The good and bad bacteria in our gut have complex ways to communicate with our brain and change our mood, she says. We need to maximize the good bacteria and minimize the bad.

That might be so. But the human microbiome is incredibly complex, and researchers are only beginning to understand its evolution over eons and how it affects our lives and well-being. An $8-million, year-long, carefully conducted study at Stanford University, with more than 600 test subjects, went a long way to debunking various diet-related hokum, including, as its researchers found, that little success by dieters could be attributed to their eating more carbohydrates or fats or basing nutrition on what we know now about individuals’ genetics.

And while the human genome, after decades of hard work, has been mapped by medical scientists and is starting to show results in medical care, microbiome study is still on-going, and its outcomes are less certain. Which isn’t stopping the hype that ties genetics, the microbiome, and diet.

Consider that a New York Times opinion piece, while ostensibly describing work in the field, also advances quickly a developing notion — that Americans big consumption of diet soda and artificial sweeteners has fueled the rise of a nasty hospital-acquired infection. Maybe. The writer marshals a lot of studies. But it’s tough to read passages like these quoting microbiome theorists, and not raise an eyebrow:

Our sugary, greasy diet diverges so much from the diet humans evolved eating … that the microbes of westernized populations may no longer mesh well with the human body. Gut microbes are kept slightly removed from the intestinal lining by a thin layer of mucus, and the Western diet seems to erode that protective barrier, bringing microbes too close. (A diet rich in soluble fiber, on the other hand, keeps the mucus barrier thick and healthy.)

What’s the takeaway here? In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and the damage inflicted on them by bad diet and weight woes. Obesity and bad eating are health banes for too many Americans, contributing to cancers, diabetes, heart diseases and more.

Instead of following a course of common sense and moderation in our eating, getting exercise and refusing to be couch potatoes, and not smoking, too many of us race from one fad diet or trendy workout routine to another. It’s a recipe for poor health. Instead, take some time and check out some of these resources (they’re worthwhile and so I’m repeating them for regular readers):

U.S. News and World Report, which seems like it would rank everything, including six kids playing marbles on the playground, offers its interesting take on “best diets,” too. Take it with a grain of salt, but at least the publication provides its ranking criteria, which may be valuable. Don’t forget that, as I said in the firm’s newsletter at the year’s beginning, small steps could take you a big way to a healthier 2018.

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