Is There a Fat Human Biome?

fatmouseA friend of mine sent me this article about Sandra Aamodt’s new book Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss. Check it out, she said. Lots of shares on social media.

I’m excited to read this book since Sandra Aamodt has been a pretty staunch anti-diet advocate in recent years. She first came to my attention in this Ted talk. The research discussed in the article centers on the human biome of the gut – the trillions of bacteria that live in our GI system, which is something I’ve been interested in for the last 20 years since I first discovered probiotics – and how our gut microbes might affect our weight.

The article talks about the research done on the biomes of mice and how different body sizes are produced when they alter the biome of bacteria-free mice (which are produced in the lab; bacteria-free humans or mice do not occur naturally). It then goes on to talk about the research based on children who had been given antibiotics early in life and their prevalence for overweight/obesity (the article’s words; you know I prefer “fat” as a body descriptor).  The article, however, makes some wild assumptions and conclusions, and I’m wondering how closely it hues to the tenor of the book.

I’m definitely of the mind that antibiotics have been overused and abused for the last 40 or more years and that’s one of the reasons why antibiotic resistant microbes have developed (MRSA, drug resistant TB). On the other hand, antibiotics are one of the reasons humans are living longer – even despite the supposed “obesity panic epidemic.” So I worry about this kind of information getting filtered through the fatphobic lens of our society and being turned into, “OMIGOD I cannot give my child antibiotics or she will turn out to be FAT.” I’m worried, in essence, that this will become the new iteration of the current anti-vaxxer madness. What if a baby needs antibiotics to save his or her life? Will they be withheld to prevent fatness? This might sound extreme, until you look at the increase in pertussis (whooping cough) and measles outbreaks that were most likely due to anti-vaccination hysteria.

The article closes with, “For now, we can take a couple of lessons from this research. Parents should minimize antibiotic use in children, especially in the first year of life, because changes in gut bacteria at that age can have lasting consequences. The average child in the United States receives ten to twenty courses of antibiotics before age 18, increasing the risks of asthma, allergies and inflammatory bowel disease, in addition to obesity and diabetes.” Can we really take these lessons yet? I’m not advocating for the cavalier use of antibiotics in kids with a mere runny nose, but as far as I know, there is simply not enough firm data to jump to all these conclusions (remember that correlation does not equal causation). The science is far from clear, and people still die regularly from simple bacterial infections in countries where they have no access to antibiotics. I’m afraid this kind of simplistic pronouncement is just going to panic parents more than needs to happen.

So let’s use some commonsense here, please. Yes, we shouldn’t abuse antibiotics; no, we probably shouldn’t withhold antibiotics from children if they truly need them just because there is a chance they will end up fat later on in life.

I’m also concerned about the potential for the research on the human biome to be abused by the diet industry in the name of eradicating fat people. How far will we go (read: how far will the diet industry go) in trying to change the biomes of fat people in order to make them into thin people? I’ll tell you this: I for one am not swallowing any poop pills to facilitate a bacterial transplant no matter how thin it might make me (as has already been proposed in recent research. Ew.). I already know what I need to do to be as healthy as I can be at the size I’m at now (knowing that many factors are beyond my control); I don’t need to literally swallow shit on top of everything else I do.

And what if we find out (too late, as always) that one person’s gut microbes aren’t good for someone else? Or that our personal biomes hold certain advantages for us and that changing that environment removes those advantages? Count me out, thanks.

I know that Sandra Aamodt will make the case that diets don’t make us thinner like they purport to do, and probably make us fatter in the long run. I am hoping she has used the research around the human biome to make the case that our weight is not really within our control, and that there are many complex factors that go into determining our body weight that we cannot necessarily influence.  I truly hope she advocates for size diversity and body acceptance. Because what we don’t need is another hare-brained scheme – like dieting to lose weight has proven to be – to make further assaults on the bodies and minds of fat people.

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3 thoughts on “Is There a Fat Human Biome?

  1. Suzanna July 5, 2016 / 3:51 pm

    I am reading the Aamodt book & it is great. I didn’t take the antibiotic message the way you’re concerned about but I never thought the antivaccer’s were sane either. I got a lot of antibiotics as a kid for nonbacterial stuff so I took it to be aimed at the misuse of antibiotics for viral colds & stuff. And she goes into the numerous reasons dieting makes us gain more weight than we ever would have if we never dieted. I am reading it to reinforce my commitment to kick my deeply ingrained diet mentality & work thru the fear of my angry emotions without food as my only way to cope.

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    • GlenysO July 6, 2016 / 9:03 am

      That’s good that the book is more reasonable in its approach to the antibiotics. Often it is the media outlet that gets it all wrong in the reporting, which is why I made the distinction between what the article said and what I hope the book will say. And yes, I 100% agree kids of my generation were definitely given antibiotics needlessly for colds, sore throats, etc. but I sense that doctors are a bit more conservative in their approach to prescribing them now given what we all know about drug resistance. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. KatieComeBack July 6, 2016 / 4:53 am

    The gut seems to be the new frontier….it’ll tell us a lot that we didn’t know. We’re just starting to scratch the surface with learning how damaging sugar is….

    That said – we need to READ and RESEARCH before we REACT. (Which was your point about the 180 on the antibiotics.) A lot of folks REACT without doing the RESEARCH or READING. That results in chaos…and some misguided Facebook posts. 🙂

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