We are fat.
While some people are overweight/obese for very real medical conditions (thyroid issues, side-effects of medications, etc), the fact of the matter is, most of us just eat/drink too much crap and we live sedentary lifestyles.
That doesnt mean that we actually acknowledge this.
There is no shortage of excuses for the obesity epidemic. Even the CDC, who has a nice list of suggestions, cant resist passing the personal-responsibility-buck:
# It is often easier and cheaper to get less healthy foods and beverages.
# Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt are highly advertised and marketed.
*nod* The Pepsi-Made-Me-Do-It defense, which we are all too familiar with here at SciBlogs. Forgive me for having no sympathy for people who prefer a 12 pack of Pepsi ($5), a bag of Doritos ($4), and a bag of peanut butter M&Ms ($3) or one drive-through dinner ($8) over a dozen eggs ($2), onion ($0.50), green pepper ($0.75), potatoes ($1), orange juice ($2), wheat bread ($2), peanut butter ($2), carrots ($1), half gallon of milk ($2) (prices lower if you dont mind store brands or catch things on sale). I cant afford to eat junk food all day every day, but I absolutely enjoy it as a treat every now and then.
“We live in a clean environment in the Western countries,” Lionetti says. “But we have a lot of allergies and obese children, and inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmunity diseases that we don’t have in Africa in this region. So, we have lost — maybe [because of] a change in the diet — healthy bacteria that can protect our guts and our organs from these bad conditions.”
To be sure, this is a small study. The researchers compared the stools of 15 children in Florence, Italy, with those of 14 children in Burkina Faso. The bacteria in the stools of African children were more varied and had a smaller proportion of microbes associated with obesity.
The paper itself could have been cool.
Of course our microbiome in the Western, developed world, is different than that of people in the rural Third World. I mean, it would be neat to know how our microbiomes are different just for fun. Knowledge for knowledges sake.
But we cant get that funded, can we? We have to justify our quest for knowledge, normally in public health terms. So, a neat information study turns into something different. People in the developed world (obviously) arent exposed to the same stuff as people in the third world. Part of that difference is what kind of bacteria we are exposed to in food and drinking water, thus what kind of bacteria make up our microbiome. Some people think that one of the reasons why some illnesses, like asthma, are on the rise, is because we arent exposed to the same ‘bad bugs’ as we used to be. The hygiene hypothesis. Knowing what bacteria inhabit kids in places where these diseases are low might help us treat kids suffering from these diseases here (or how to prevent them in kids here).
Well, they dont really focus on that. Its a very limited observational paper, and they completely overstretch their conclusions.
Our results suggest that diet has a dominant role over other possible variables such as ethnicity, sanitation, hygiene, geography, and climate, in shaping the gut microbiota. We can hypothesize that the reduction in richness we observe in EU compared with BF children, could indicate how the consumption of sugar, animal fat, and calorie-dense foods in industrialized countries is rapidly limiting the adaptive potential of the microbiota. This microbial simpliﬁcation harbors the risk of depriving our microbial gene pool of potentially useful environmental gene reservoirs that allow adaptation to peculiar diets, as we observed in BF population and as recently shown by diet-induced horizontal gene transfer in Japanese individuals consuming algae in their diet.
You all know how pop-science media is going to represent this (go on, Google this). If only us silly Westerners would stop with ‘refined’ foods and meat and sugar and so on, and went back to the Golden Era, the Long Long Ago, The Garden Of Eden, when people planted and harvested their own food and were vegetarians that ate nothing but grains and vegetables! Our bodies would go back to their Natural State! Natural bacteria would colonize us, and we wouldnt be fat anymore!! We wouldnt have allergies! We wouldnt have enteric bacterial diseases anymore!!
Eve didnt eat an apple and curse man– SHE DRANK A PEPSI!!!!!
Yes, the differences between African childrens microbiome and Western childrens microbiome is neat, for scientific reasons and maybe medical reasons. I think there are many, many, many limitations to this paper. I also dont think they capitalized on a very valuable piece of data staring them right in the face:
The amount of calories (average) consumed varies considerably in the two populations (BF children: 1-2 y old, 672.2 kcal/d; 2-6 y old, 996 kcal/d; EU children: 1-2 y old, 1,068.7 kcal/d; 2-6 y old, 1,512.7 kcal/d).
So, completely excluding physical activity, a 6 year old in Europe has eaten 766,427 kcals more than a 6 year old child in rural Africa.
How do those African children maintain such slender physiques?
Must be their microbiome.
Last minute edit– Ohhhh I didnt guess the direction pop-science media would take this! They went with ‘Junk Food Causes Allergies’. Faaaaaantastic! NHS has a great break down and take down of this study and its associated media reports.
The researchers said that studying populations with different diets and gut bacteria may help to further our understanding of how a particular diet may contribute to health by promoting the growth of healthy bacteria. However, this study made no link between particular bacteria, diet and illness. Additionally they looked at a Western (Italian) diet in general and did not look specifically at junk food.
Part of this I blame on the media. But part of the blame is in the overreaching claims made by the scientists on this paper, in this paper, and in the media.