A 16-Week Vegan Diet Can Do Wonders for Your Gut Microbiome
By Dan Gray
- Research shows that 16 weeks of a vegan diet can boost the gut microbiome, helping with weight loss and overall health.
- A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome. A plant-based diet is the best way to achieve this.
- It isn't necessary to opt for a strictly vegan diet, but it's beneficial to limit meat intake.
New research shows that following a vegan diet for about 4 months can boost your gut microbiome. In turn, that can lead to improvements in body weight and blood sugar management.
But it doesn't mean you need to swear off the meat and dairy entirely.
It's significant, however, that moving toward a more plant-based diet is probably the healthiest choice.
The research, led by Dr. Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD, of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, was presented this week at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Barcelona, Spain.
Researchers studied 147 participants, randomized into two groups. One followed a low-fat vegan diet. The other made no changes to their diet.
After the 16-week study was completed, researchers reported the vegan group saw their body weight, fat mass, and visceral fat levels go down.
"We expected to see changes in the gut microbiome on a plant-based diet," Kahleova told Healthline. "However, it was surprising to see how fast the changes occurred and how profound they were."
When asked what the biggest takeaway of the research is, Kahleova was unequivocal.
"Eat more plants," she said. "They contain fiber that boosts the gut microbiome and metabolic health."
What’s the Gut Microbiome?
Because this research deals with how a vegan diet boosts the gut microbiome, it's worth knowing what the gut microbiome actually is.
The microorganisms that live in the digestive tract, when properly balanced, promote a healthy digestive tract, along with the immune system, bowel movements, metabolism, and hormones that help with appetite regulation.
But when the microbiome is unbalanced, things can get out of whack.
"What's happened is we've moved to a more Western diet that includes such highly processed foods like bread, rice, pasta, and a lot of animal meat," explained Sharon Zarabi, RD, CDN, CPT, bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
"That has changed the harmony of the microbiome," Zarabi told Healthline. "A lot of the gut bacteria are imbalanced, and that can lead to exacerbated symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, decreased immune system, and even proliferation of cancer cells."
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, manages wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio. She says the researchers' findings aren't surprising.
"Multiple studies show benefits to a plant-based diet. One of the greatest predictors of good gut health is a variety of antioxidant-, phytonutrient- and fiber-rich foods. Plants provide the bulk of these," Kirkpatrick told Healthline.
Plant-Based or Vegan: What’s Best?
While the study specifically looked at people who followed a vegan diet, dietitians say that while a plant-based diet is the healthy way to go, it isn't necessary to follow a strict vegan diet.
"When we're eating a more diverse plate of food that has different macronutrients, such as protein and fiber and complex carbs and healthy fat, we get to increase the diversity of the microbiome," Zarabi said.
"A vegan diet that promotes high-fiber foods that come from plants will improve the gut microbiome. But when we start to take out all animal protein, we tend to limit ourselves with where our protein is coming from. If you're [eating] from a vegan diet, it's mostly coming from beans and some vegetables. So it's really important to make sure you don't fall short on any nutrients," Zarabi said.
While it's hard to argue with some of the ethical reasons for embracing veganism — including animal welfare and reducing one's carbon footprint — it's still crucial to monitor one's nutrition.
"A vegan diet can be less advantageous if all your foods are frozen dinners and white grains," Kirkpatrick said. "Doing your research and meeting with your doctor or dietitian to help you get started is recommended."
You Are What You Eat
It might seem daunting to make the pivot from burgers and fries to lean protein and veggies. But it isn't impossible.
"I think the first step is familiarizing yourself with the different vegetables that are out there, specifically the vegetables that have the prebiotic fibers," Zarabi said. "These are the initial phase of what probiotics feed on: indigestible fibers that help encourage the growth and proliferation of the probiotics."
High-prebiotic foods include asparagus, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage, garlic, cashews, lentils, and chickpeas.
Zarabi cautions that when these foods are unfamiliar to the gut, initial side effects could include bloating and gas as the body learns to adapt.
"If you have those symptoms in the beginning, don't get turned off just yet," she said. "Give your body some time to adapt to the changes. If you're still feeling a lot of GI distress, you may want to work with a dietitian to figure out which vegetables or prebiotics are better for you."
When planning a meal, it's helpful to think in terms of thirds.
A third of the plate should be vegetables, a third should be lean protein sources, and a third should be complex carbs, such as sweet potatoes, beets, quinoa, bran, and oats.
There's also room for healthy fat, such as olive or avocado oil, because they help improve heart health.
Kirkpatrick recommends entirely cutting out red and processed meat, or at least limiting these products to twice a month.
"You are what you eat, so what goes into your body affects your health outcomes," Zarabi said.
"Eat as close to nature as possible," she said. "Think about what you're putting in your body. How many steps did it have to go through to get to you? Choose foods that are close to nature, the ones that include one ingredient. They're the best for you."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>