When I wrote The Germ Files I had one goal in mind. I wanted readers to better understand the role of microbes in their lives and in their health. In doing so, I avoided using the names of specific species unless it was warranted. Instead, I grouped the hundreds to thousands of species found in and on our bodies into three major groups.
As I’ve learned, this strategy was quite effective as it kept the focus on the information, mechanisms, and any relevant advice I shared.
I also made it very clear this book was composed for all audiences, not just those in the scientific community. This was not a 300 page academic paper. Although the statements were based on over a thousand scientific articles – and some of my own research – I had no intention of regurgitating the information. Doing so would have put me into a corner and limited the reach of my message.
If you haven’t read the book yet, I invite you to pick it up and give it a read because it will help to understand what I am about to discuss.
Last week, a paper came out in the journal PLoS ONE entitled: Microbiome restoration diet improves digestion, cognition and physical and emotional wellbeing. As you might expect, this initially caught my eye as it appeared to parallel what I like to call the “good germs friendly diet” I discuss in my book. I was anxious to give it a read.
The concept appeared to be relatively straightforward. A group of 21 volunteers underwent a month-long diet called The Gut Makeover. The paper outlined the diet, which involved the following steps:
- Three main meals each day with no snacks between;
- Nothing between dinner and breakfast;
- Five cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit;
- Add some protein;
- Keep the plants varied between 20 and 30 over the course of a week;
- At least 20 chews per bite
- Use virgin olive oil and coconut oil as the base for any cooking
As for the restrictions, there were quite a few including refined sugars, grains, alcohol, caffeine, and dairy products.
At this point, the diet seemed to be similar to almost all diets out there. Nothing seemed to be unique.
The difference involved the inclusion of fermented and prebiotic foods after the second week. This included kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso on the fermented side and a variety of fibre-filled vegetables and fruit as prebiotics.
Once I had arrived at this, I had mixed feelings. All of these recommendations are part of a “good germs friendly diet.” Most also can be found in the best diet for our microbes, the Mediterranean diet. But as this was a “microbiome restoration” plan, I figured there would be some good news to come.
I was wrong.
As the title implies, many of the people who undertook the diet did lose weight and had improved physical and emotional well-being. That wasn’t so bad. What truly disappointed me was the lack of any experiments examining the nature of the microbial population in the gut. Considering the title of the document I figured there might be at least some evidence to show restoration had occurred. Yet there was nothing.
This paper clearly demonstrates the problem with what I like to call conceit.
The article was presented in a manner to convince readers the diet would improve one’s microbial population. One month of dieting would restore the number of friends and bystanders while reducing the number of foes. Yet, there was no experimental evidence to prove this transition occurred.
Which brings me to the most important question this paper didn’t answer: Did the diet really restore the microbial balance? If you have read The Germ Files, you’ll realize the answer is no. Based on several experiments examining the components of this diet, these are the most likely mechanisms.
- The caloric restrictions would have led to a reduction in proteins known to form fat;
- The use of fibre would have led to an increase in intestinal bile and decreased cholesterol;
- The lack of sugars would have led to increased fat oxidation and adipose tissue loss;
- The polyunsaturated fats would reduce inflammation;
- The polyphenols in vegetables and fruit would have helped to balance immune function;
- The addition of fermented foods would have a short term beneficial impact on health.
As for the microbes? Most of these dietary components are anti-foe and pro-friends/bystanders. So one might expect a microbial shift during the change in eating habits. But unless an individual continues this regimen nonstop, the alteration is temporary. Within as little as three days, the foes would most likely return.
Being able to identify the conceit behind the concept is important because it will help gain a grasp on the real message instead of the one being presented.
This paper is only one example – although probably one of the most obvious I’ve seen in a while – of many we see both in the academic literature and on store shelves. Figuring out which are valid and which are not worth the effort can be difficult.
What I can tell you is that when I write, I concentrate on clarity, not conceit.
I want readers to understand the information in a way that makes sense with as little questions as possible. Those of you who have read my books will appreciate what I am saying. If you haven’t had the chance, I hope you give it a shot.
Finally, I usually don’t market my works as I let them stand for themselves and let the clicks and sales happen naturally. But when I see an article such as this diet paper appear in the literature and subsequently gain public attention, I feel the need to offer an alternative. If my words help to keep people from doubting the influence of microbes in our lives and the microbiologists who study them, I believe it’s well worth taking the risk of being called a conceited self-promoter.