Are Happy Gut Bacteria Key to Weight Loss?
Imbalances in the microbial community in your intestines may lead to metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes. What does science say about how to reset our bodies?
By Moises Velasquez-Manoff
Apr. 22, 2013
A few years before Super Size Me hit theaters in 2004, Dr. Paresh Dandona, a diabetes specialist in Buffalo, New York, set out to measure the body's response to McDonald's—specifically breakfast. Over several mornings, he fed nine normal-weight volunteers an egg sandwich with cheese and ham, a sausage muffin sandwich, and two hash brown patties.
Dandona is a professor at the State University of New York-Buffalo who also heads the Diabetes-Endocrinology Center of Western New York, and what he observed has informed his research ever since. Levels of a C-reactive protein, an indicator of systemic inflammation, shot up "within literally minutes." "I was shocked," he recalls, that "a simple McDonald's meal that seems harmless enough"—the sort of high-fat, high-carbohydrate meal that 1 in 4 Americans eats regularly—would have such a dramatic effect. And it lasted for hours.
Inflammation comes in many forms. The swelling of a sprained ankle indicates repairing torn muscle and tendon. The redness and pain around an infected cut signifies the body's repulsion of microbes. The fever, aches, and pains that accompany the flu represent a body-wide seek-and-destroy mission directed against an invading virus. They're all essential to survival, the body's response to a perceived threat or injury. But inflammation can also cause collateral damage, especially when the response is overwhelming—like in septic shock—or when it goes on too long.
Chronic, low-grade inflammation has long been recognized as a feature of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of dysfunctions that tends to precede full-blown diabetes and that also increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and even dementia—the top killers of the developed world. The syndrome includes a combination of elevated blood sugar and high blood pressure, low "good" cholesterol, and an abdominal cavity filled with fat, often indicated by a "beer belly." But recently, doctors have begun to question whether chronic inflammation is more than just a symptom of metabolic syndrome: Could it, in fact, be a major cause?
For Dandona, who's given to waxing grandiloquent about the joys of a beer on the porch in his native Delhi, or the superb ice wines from the Buffalo region, the results presented a quandary. Food was a great pleasure in life. Why would Nature be so cruel, he wondered, and punish us just for eating?
Over the next decade he tested the effects of various foods on the immune system. A fast-food breakfast inflamed, he found, but a high-fiber breakfast with lots of fruit did not. A breakthrough came in 2007 when he discovered that while sugar water, a stand-in for soda, caused inflammation, orange juice—even though it contains plenty of sugar—didn't.
The Florida Department of Citrus, a state agency, was so excited it underwrote a subsequent study, and had fresh-squeezed orange juice flown in for it. This time, along with their two-sandwich, two-hash-brown, 910-calorie breakfast, one-third of his volunteers—10 in total—quaffed a glass of fresh OJ. The non-juice drinkers, half of whom drank sugar water, and the other half plain water, had the expected response—inflammation and elevated blood sugar. But the OJ drinkers had neither elevated blood sugar nor inflammation. The juice seemed to shield their metabolism. "It just switched off the whole damn thing," Dandona says. Other scientists have since confirmed that OJ has a strong anti-inflammatory effect...