Health

Some guts are better than others at harvesting

Some guts are better than others at harvesting

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image: Associate Professor Henrik Roeger in the laboratory.
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Credit: University of Copenhagen.

New research from the University of Copenhagen suggests that part of the Danish population has a composition of gut microbes that, on average, extracts more energy from food than the gut microbes of their fellow Danes. The research is a step toward understanding why some people gain more weight than others, even when they eat the same.

To be fair, some of us seem to gain weight just by looking at a plate of Christmas cookies, while others can munch with abandon and not gain an ounce. Part of the explanation may have to do with the makeup of our gut microbes. That’s according to new research conducted at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sport.

Researchers examined the residual energy in the feces of 85 Danes to assess how efficient their gut microbes were at extracting energy from food. At the same time, they mapped the composition of gut microbes for each participant.

The results showed that approximately 40 percent of the participants belonged to a group that, on average, derived more energy from food than the other 60 percent. The researchers also noted that those who got the most energy from food also weighed an average of 10 percent more, which is an extra nine kilograms.

“We may have found a key to understanding why some people gain more weight than others, even when they don’t eat more or in some way differently. But this needs to be investigated further,” says Associate Professor Henrik Roager from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sport.

May increase the risk of obesity

The results show that being overweight may not be just about how healthy a person eats or the amount of exercise they get. It may also have something to do with the composition of a person’s gut microbes.

The participants were divided into three groups based on the composition of their gut microbes. The so-called type B composition (dominated by Bacteroidetes bacteria) was more effective at extracting nutrients from food and was seen in 40 percent of participants.

After the study, researchers suspected that part of the population might be at a disadvantage because they have gut bacteria that are too efficient at extracting energy. This efficiency can result in more calories available to the human host from the same amount of food.

“The fact that our gut bacteria are great at extracting energy from food is basically a good thing, because the bacteria’s metabolism of food provides additional energy in the form of, for example, short-chain fatty acids, which are molecules that our bodies can use as fuel , supplying energy. But if we consume more than we burn, the extra energy provided by gut bacteria can increase the risk of obesity over time,” says Henrik Roeger.

The short intestinal travel time is surprising

From the mouth to the esophagus, stomach, duodenum and small intestine, colon and finally the rectum, the food we eat travels from 12 to 36 hours, passing through several stations along the way before the body extracts all the nutrients from the food.

The researchers also looked at the duration of this trip for each participant, all of whom had similar dietary patterns. Here, the researchers hypothesized that those with long digestion times would be the ones who collected the most nutrients from their food. But the study found just the opposite.

“We thought there would be a long digestion time, which would allow more energy to be extracted.” But here we see that the participants with type B gut bacteria, which extract the most energy, also have the fastest passage through the gastrointestinal system, which gave us food for thought,” says Henrik Roeger.

It confirms a previous study in mice

The new human study confirms previous studies in mice. In these studies, it was found that germ-free mice that received gut microbes from obese donors gained more weight than mice that received gut microbes from lean donors, even though they were fed the same diet.

Even then, the researchers hypothesized that the differences in weight gain could be due to the fact that the gut bacteria of obese people were more efficient at extracting energy from food. That’s the theory now being confirmed in new research from the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sport.

“It’s very interesting that the group of people who have less energy in their stools weigh more on average. However, this study does not provide evidence that the two factors are directly related. We hope to explore this further in the future,” says Henrik Roeger.

For gut bacteria:

  • Everyone has a unique composition of gut bacteria – shaped by genetics, environment, lifestyle and diet.
  • The collection of gut bacteria called the gut microbiota is like an entire galaxy in our guts, with an astonishing 100 billion of them per gram of stool.
  • Intestinal bacteria in the large intestine serve to break down parts of food that our body’s digestive enzymes cannot, such as dietary fiber.
  • Humans can be divided into three groups based on the presence and abundance of three main groups of bacteria that most of us have: B-type (Bacteroidetes), R-type (Ruminococcaceae) and P-type (Prevotella).

About the research

  • The energy content of stool samples from 85 overweight Danish women and men was investigated.
  • Participants included men and women aged 22 to 66.
  • 40 percent of the participants fell into a special group characterized by less diversity of gut bacteria and a faster time for food to travel through their digestive tract.
  • This group was also found to have less residual energy in the stool than the other two groups, which could not be explained by differences in habitual diet.
  • The researchers also noted that the group with less energy in their stools also weighed more than the other groups.

Contact:

Henrik Roeger

Docent

Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports

University of Copenhagen

[email protected]

+45 35 32 49 28

+45 25 48 06 99

Michael Skov Jensen

Journalist and team coordinator

The Faculty of Natural Sciences

University of Copenhagen

+ 45 93 56 58 97

[email protected]


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