Diet matters, no matter how old you are. In fact, researchers believe diet is the single most important factor that determines one’s current and future health. How physically active a person is a close second. Previous studies show that the effects of diet on health begin early in life, as early as childhood, and they can have long-lasting effects on gut health and health overall. According to a new study, childhood diet can alter their microbiome for years to come.
The Gut Microbiome and Why a Healthy One Matters
The gut microbiome is command central for nutrient absorption and immune health. Numerous studies show the health of a person’s gut microbiome plays a critical role in health and body weight and greater gut microbiome diversity is more beneficial.
Why is a diverse gut better for your health? A diverse gut environment means you have more bacterial players to carry out bodily functions. If one can’t rise to the task, maybe a different strain can. Plus, studies link greater microbiome diversity with a reduced risk of obesity. One reason antibiotics are not gut friendly is that they destroy pathogenic and healthy gut bacteria, reducing the diversity of the gut microbiome.
Diet Now and Early in Life Matters for Gut Health
In a recent study, researchers at the University of California at Riverside studied mice that ate a diet high in fat and sugar, similar to a junk food diet in humans, and also looked at the impact of exercise. For the study, researchers studied young mice, the equivalent of juvenile humans, and divided them into four groups. One group ate the equivalent of a Western diet high in fat and sugar, while another ate a healthier diet. Half of each group could access an exercise wheel to stay physically active while the others couldn’t.
After three weeks of munching on their respective diets, the mice went back to their usual diets without exercise. However, the researchers also took a closer look at their gut microbiomes, the composition of gut bacteria that live in their intestines.
What they found was the young mice who ate the Western diet had lower quantities of key bacteria linked with health. In particular, they had reduced levels of a type of bacteria involved in carbohydrate metabolism and reduced microbiome diversity. That’s important since, as mentioned, studies link lower microbiome diversity with greater health risks and with obesity.
One drawback to this study is it’s a mouse study. However, researchers believe the results likely apply to humans too. It suggests that what you eat now matters for the health of the gut microbiome, but what you ate in the past may have an effect too. As one researcher in the study pointed out, “You are not only what you eat, but what you ate as a child.” It’s another argument to feed kids a healthy diet with lots of whole, fiber-rich foods so they will develop a diverse microbiome as early as possible.
What Kids Eat Can Impact Their Health Later On
This isn’t the first study to show that what a child eats affects their health as an adult. Studies show that diet during childhood affects a person’s future risk of developing chronic health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. One way it does this is by changing the expression of genes that affect hormones involved in metabolism. It also appears that early diet may alter the gut microbiome in a way that increases disease risk.
Building a Healthier Gut Microbiome
If you ate an unhealthy diet as a child, you can’t go back in time and change that, but you can still improve gut health and the health of your microbiome. Adding more plant-based foods to the menu will supply your gut with fiber, including prebiotic fiber, that healthy gut bacteria thrive on. Also, avoid over-processed junk food, refined grains, white flour, and sweets. Doing so will increase the diversity of gut bacteria.
Another tip: Avoid factors that disrupt gut microbiome health, like antibiotics. Sometimes you need them but don’t take them for a viral infection. It can take up to a year for the gut microbiome to recover from a single dose of antibiotics, and, according to some research, gut health may never completely recover from an antibiotic prescription.
Add some fermented foods to your diet too. You’re familiar with yogurt, but it’s not the only food that contains beneficial gut bacteria. Fermented vegetables are an excellent option because they contain fiber that serves as a prebiotic too. Sauerkraut isn’t the only fermented vegetable you can enjoy. There are a variety of vegetables you can ferment yourself at home or buy at a local health food store or natural food market. Other fermented options include kombucha, kefir, tempeh, and miso.
Make sure you’re managing stress and getting enough sleep too. Animal studies show that stress can disrupt the gut microbiome in an unhealthy way. Exercise is an effective way to relieve stress, especially mind-body exercise, like yoga.
The Bottom Line
The diet you ate as a child may affect your gut microbiome today. If you have kids, make sure they eat a healthy diet early in life. However, there are still ways to improve the health of your microbiome at any age through diet and lifestyle. Now you know some of the best ways to do that.
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- Monica P. McNamara, Jennifer M. Singleton, Marcell D. Cadney, Paul M. Ruegger, James Borneman, Theodore Garland. Early-life effects of juvenile Western diet and exercise on adult gut microbiome composition in mice. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 2021; jeb.239699 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.239699.
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