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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

A Healthy Diet: Good in More than One way
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Huawei Zeng

Did you know that you are never really alone?  That is, that you spend every moment in the company of microorganisms in and on your body? 

The human body carries an amazing 100 trillion microorganisms – ten times number of actual human cells.   Most of these microbes reside in the large intestine; smaller numbers reside in and on other parts of the body.  Collectively, they are referred to as the microbiota.

A healthy colon microbiota functions much like an organ of the body.  It converts undigestable components of foods into forms that can be absorbed in the colon.  In this way, it renders available from dietary fiber energy that the individual could not otherwise use.  The fatty acids it produces also signal the immune cells of the colon and prevent growth of harmful bacteria. 

The colon microbiota is thought to have a significant role in the utilization of food energy by converting dietary fiber to fatty acids.  Research has indicated that this may account for as much as 10% of daily energy absorbed.  Thus, factors that affect the nature and function of the microbiota may also affect the utilization of food energy.  In fact, the microbiota of obese appear to glean food energy more efficiently than those of lean individuals.  

An individual first acquires microbiota from the mother during birth.  The nature of the microbiota observed in the first year of life has been associated with the risk of developing obesity later in life. Therefore, the health of the gut microbiota may be an important consideration in a weight management program.

Research has shown that what you eat affects your gut microbiota.   Dietary sources of soluble fiber, collectively referred to as prebiotics, stimulate the growth of a healthy microbiota and increase resistance to harmful bacteria.   Prebiotic carbohydrates are found in whole grains and many vegetables – beans, peas, lentils, asparagus, garlic, leeks, onions, artichokes.  By following the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans (4 1/2 – 6 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits, 6 – 10 ounces of grains containing about 50% whole grains) one should expect to get at least 21 – 38 grams of prebiotic carbohydrates each day.

A healthy diet is good for you in a way you may not have thought - by also being good for your healthful gut microbiota.

For more information about the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans visit:  www.ChooseMyPlate.gov.


Last Modified: 1/13/2014
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