An Israel-based team of scientists may have found the reason for yo yo dieting. It seems to be the fault of our gut microbes – the “microbiome”.
When I first heard about probiotics and their role in gut health, I was pretty sceptical. I watched TV ads for sugary, processed probiotic shots, and thought: what a brilliant marketing technique. Call me an old sceptic – in fact I was quite young at the time – but I thought it was a complete load of psuedo-science.
I quite liked the taste of the drink though, and I had some admiration for the company in getting people to consume their product every day.
As the years went on, and more scientific research was reported in the press backing up the “friendly bacteria” claims, I began to accept that there might be some truth in the probiotics-for-health claims – only as probiotic drinks are generally made from milk, and I’ve had a cow’s milk intolerance for the past 20 years, the whole probiotics craze kind of passed me by…
Until I read the book Gut by Giulia Enders. As soon as it appeared in the bookshop window, I knew I would have to read it, because ever since my digestive system started to react in a really bizarre and very unpleasant way to cow’s milk, I’ve been on a quest to find out why.
Not only did Giulia’s book give me a good idea of the probable cause of my intolerance – it also sparked off a fascination in me for the trillions of tiny bacteria that reside in our digestive systems – and in many other parts of the body. In a very entertaining way, the book showed me how important these bacteria are to not only our physical health, but our mental health too.
After reading Gut, I then read several more books on the subject. I couldn’t wait to have my own gut sampled, so that I could find out more about the bacteria that inhabit it, and how friendly or unfriendly they are.
By now I understood that you can change the types of bacteria in your gut by eating certain foods, by exercising regularly, and even by changing your mood! Research has shown that stress can affect the types of bacteria that reside in your digestive tract.
So by getting a gut sample analysed, I would be able to find out whether I needed to make any adjustments in my lifestyle in order to improve my health.
In this video, I discuss the results of my gut sample:
Sending a poo sample
In order to get this analysis done, I sent a small sample of my poo to a company called uBiome. About a month later, they sent me an email link to a website where I was able to view my results.
I was pleasantly surprised by the results – and I’m saying this without too much pride, because it wasn’t a perfect picture by any means. But maybe better than I’d expected. Actually I’m really not sure what I’d expected!
Scientists are still in the early stages of exploring the gazillions of bacteria that accompany us wherever we go, and although some truly fascinating discoveries have been made, such as the links between certain bacteria and autism, or the ability to cure certain diseases, there are a lot of unknowns.
For example, my results showed that I have a very diverse set of bacteria in my gut – so diverse that only one percent of all those people sampled have more bacterial diversity than I do. Bacterial diversity is said to be a good thing. But many of those masses of diverse bacteria have yet to be researched – science does not know anything about their attributes or how “friendly” they are. Hopefully most of them will provide some sort of immunity. But who knows?
The contents of my “gut kit”, with everything I needed to take a poo sample and send it off to the lab for analysis.
The analysis report also showed that I had significantly more Bacteriodetes than Firmicutes – almost 2 to 1. Apparently, people on a “western” diet tend to have a lot more Firmicutes than Bacteriodes, so this might be because I eat a lot of low-fat, high-fibre food.
I was very pleased to learn that 8.93% of my gut bacteria are Akkermansia, more than four times the average amount shown in most gut samples. Scientists have found an association between low levels of Akkermansia and obesity and inflammatory bowel disease, so there have been suggestions that these bacteria might offer protection from these conditions.
As with most bacteria, the picture isn’t exactly clear cut. I actually have a BMI of 26.4 which makes me officially overweight! I think this is mainly due to an issue of subclinical hypothyroidism, as until the last couple of years I’ve generally been quite slim, and found it easy to lose weight.
I do eat quite a lot of fat – I try to consume the “healthier” fats like avocados, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, but I have a soft spot for crisps, puddings and cakes too! That’s probably why I have a good sprinkling of Alistipes (5.35%), which can be associated with obesity.
It’s also relevant that I took a course of antibiotics about 18 months ago, to treat Lyme disease. Antibiotics can wipe out swathes of friendly bacteria, and therefore it’s best not to take them unless you really have to. It’s very reassuring to me that my bacteria have either not been too badly affected by the antibiotics I took, or that they’ve recovered.
Or maybe the antibiotics were responsible for one of the most striking things about my gut report: which is an almost complete lack of Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Alternatively, this could be due to my intolerance to cow’s milk – or a bit of both.
If you’d like to know more about your bacterial make-up, you can purchase a gut kit at ubiome.com/explorer.
And you can get 10 percent off a uBiome gut kit when you use the code FREETHINK1 at online checkout.
I occasionally eat goat’s cheese, but never goat’s milk or yogurt. However, that’s going to change from now on. I’m now eating a small amount of goat’s yogurt every day (made with live cultures), to see if it will help add these very desirable bacteria. I’m also going to take Lactobacillus acidophilus supplements.
What I eat in a day
My day-to-day diet varies a lot, but one thing I always eat every single day is two x 400-500ml green smoothies usually made with green leafy vegetables like spinach or kale, bananas, mango or pineapple and water.
I have these for lunch or brunch, and I also have an apple or orange and 50-100g of nuts.
Breakfast varies – sometimes I have two eggs on rye bread or toast; sometimes porridge (made with water and salt as I have a cow’s milk intolerance) with fruit. Or sometimes I’ll have a smoothie bowl made with nutmilk or hemp milk and fruit.
I try to have a salad or at least some veggies with my evening meal, but apart from that, almost anything goes. My evening meal can be fish and potatoes, pasta and cheese sauce or if I’m feeling really healthy, a hearty vegetable soup. If I’m feeling hungry during the day I’ll have a sandwich and crisps (the sea salt kind).
I’m definitely no stranger to cakes, puddings and choc bars, though I deliberately tried to reduce my sugar consumption a few months ago, because I was becoming addicted to the stuff. So I try to limit my consumption of these. In general, if I eat a lot of healthy food and get a good night’s sleep, I don’t crave sweets so much.
I try to eat natural – I try to avoid processed food, including refined sugar and salt, but I’m not obsessive about it. And I like a glass or two of red wine, though I don’t drink much – maybe once or twice a week.
I’m far from being a “clean eater”, but my aim is to eat a lot of high-fibre raw food early in the day, so that whatever I eat after that, I can be confident that my body is getting the nutrients it needs.
The green smoothie is one of the healthiest convenience foods in existence. It’s high in vitamin C, fibre, magnesium and lots of other nutrients, but relatively low in sugar. It’s hydrating, and it tastes a lot nicer than you might think. You can pour it into your favourite drinking vessel and take it to work or the gym – you’ll find it surprisingly filling.
A green smoothie is just a fruit smoothie with added greens such as spinach, kale or chard. The greens add nutrients like iron and fibre, and the fruit masks the taste of the greens – in fact, they blend well together.
I usually have two 500ml green smoothies for lunch, but if you’re not used to smoothies, it’s best to start small (250-350ml) and build up gradually so that your system gets used to the high dose of fibre. A green smoothie should keep for up to three days in the fridge.
This recipe is for a 350-500ml green smoothie. When making green smoothies it’s not important to use exact amounts of ingredients – what’s more important is the balance of ingredients.
Green smoothies have to include greens – whether that’s kale, spinach, chard or any other type of greens is up to you, and you can vary the amount of greens used according to taste and how much your system can cope with fibre. I recommend a handful of greens in each juice, but if you don’t normally have a high-fibre diet, it’s best to build up the greens gradually.
Ingredients can vary, but for this smoothie I’ve used:
• 1/2 banana
• 1/4 mango
• 1/2 orange
• 50g greens
Start by putting the fruit into the blender.
My favourite recipe is one banana, a quarter mango flesh or pineapple and half an orange or apple, with a large handful of spinach or kale. I peel all of the fruit except for the apple. Apple skin has a lot of nutrients, and if you have a good blender, you won’t get any lumpiness from the skin – only the flavour.
But if you’re worried about pesticide use you might want to peel the apple first. I always remove the apple core and any orange pips, and I also remove the hard central section of the pineapple.
Add about 150-200ml water.
Add the greens.
You can add the ingredients in any order you want, but I find it easier to add the water before adding the greens.
You might also want to add other flavourings at this stage, such as paprika or nutmeg. Paprika is rich in iron, and the taste is not nearly as spicy as you might think – it blends well with greens. Some people like to add cayenne pepper, which is fine but just add a pinch – cayenne is very strong.
Or you can just leave it as it is.
Now, you’re ready to…
How long should you blend for? A good guideline is 30 seconds, but again, it depends on your preference. With spinach you might need only 20-25 seconds. Some people like the odd lump and don’t like to blend for too long in case it destroys the nutrient content. If you’ve added a lot of kale you might want to blend it for a minute or a bit longer.
Pour into your favourite drinking vessel, and enjoy!
Kale has a wonderful flavour (try chewing some raw – you might be surprised!), but you need a powerful blender to extract the taste and pulp all the ingredients into a smooth liquid without lumps. The best blenders cost hundreds of £s/$s, but there are much cheaper blenders that make excellent green smoothies with kale or almost any other type of greens.
I would recommend using a blender with an engine power of 300 watts minimum if you plan to blend kale. If your blender has less power, I would advise you to use spinach rather than kale, as you won’t need as much power to blend spinach into a smooth, lump-free liquid. This is probably the best plan if you’re new to green smoothies.
The Nutribullet has a 600W engine, so it will comfortably pulp kale to a smooth consistency. Various models are available, but I would go for one with at least two blender cups for convenience.
The Breville Blend Active only works in the UK, though similar types of blender are available in other countries. It has a taller, slimmer blender cup and a motor of just 300W, but I find it handles kale pretty well. Again, I would recommend getting the version that comes with an extra blender cup.