By Amy K. Stewart
As the popularity of probiotics increases and they become more readily available, Utah State University researchers have obtained a $210,000 grant allowing them to study the potential for this “good bacteria” as possibly the secret to weight loss.
Probiotics are bacteria microbes that are considered to have beneficial health effects when consumed. The microbes live in a person’s intestines and positively affect health — especially digestion-related issues.
People can consume probiotics through foods such as cheese and even homemade sauerkraut, but mainly in live-culture yogurt. Probiotics are also available in a capsule form as a food supplement.
“You see probiotics popping up in a lot of places,” said Robert Ward, an associate professor of nutrition, dietetics and food sciences at Utah State, who is also on the research team.
Utah State researchers plan to introduce probiotics to a sample group of overweight individuals. They’re hoping to gather significant data about weight loss.
“People who are overweight tend to have different proportions of microbes. We’re hoping to see a shift in that,” Ward said. “It will be interesting to see if that happens.”
Probiotics are popular in health-food circles, said Teresa Hunsaker, on the family consumer science faculty for the Utah State Extension Service in Weber County.
“But people have been eating yogurt for years and saying yogurt is good for you, so it’s nothing new that way,” she said.
Whether yogurt is live culture and contains beneficial probiotics can generally be determined by reading the label of the yogurt container. The ingredients may refer to the probiotics in the form of a strain of bacteria, the most popular one being “lactobacillus acidophilus.”
“You can pretty much find probiotics in any fermented food — and that includes yogurt,” said Hannah Cross, wellness counselor at Good Earth Natural Foods in Riverdale.
Probiotic supplements can be found in most groceries and health-food stores. The supplement is available in refrigerated and shelf-stored varieties, as well as in capsules or liquid. The supplement potency can range from 1 billion to 100 billion counts of bacteria per capsule. The liquid form can be milk-based or vegetarian, Cross said.
Some probiotic supplements have one strain of bacteria; others have several strains and can be selected based on whether the consumer is targeting immune system health, digestive health, colon support or feminine health, Cross said.
“There are different probiotics that can be beneficial in different ways for you,” she said, some marketed to age groups from infants to seniors.
Probiotics are beneficial to a person’s gastrointestinal tract, or bowel, in ensuring that digestion is effective. If a person has been on antibiotics for a long time, the colon can become lacking in good bacteria; this is treated with probiotics to help bring things back into balance, said Grant Cefalo, clinical lead dietitian for McKay-Dee Hospital.
Hunsaker said probiotics renourish the intestinal tract, which is needed sometimes after a person takes antibiotics. “People who have ‘temperamental bowels’ to begin with can really benefit from probiotics,” Hunsaker said. “It’s really helpful to minimize some of those uncomfortable symptoms.”
Probiotics bring back micro-flora broken down by the antibiotics. Probiotics can also reduce the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s Disease, Hunsaker added.
Cefalo said he hasn’t heard of any negative side effects of taking probiotics, but pointed out that it’s not something that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. “You also need to tell your doctor you are taking probiotics,” he said.
Cefalo has been paying attention to recent studies on probiotics.
“The research is finding that some people who don’t have the good bacteria in their gut have a harder time losing weight,” Cefalo said. “Researchers are working to find different uses for probiotics besides in health care.”
Experiments on mice that involved giving them microbes from an overweight animal resulted in the mice gaining weight, Ward said.
“People are always looking for ways to prevent weight gain but also to understand how and why weight gain happens,” Ward said. “One of the contributing factors to weight gain is the microbes in our gut — and one of the ways you can change that is by consuming probiotics.”
Utah State’s $210,000 grant is from the Dairy Research Institute. It was awarded in July; the university received the funding in September. The grant is to be distributed over 2 1/2 years.
Possible weight loss
Researchers plan to identify a population of overweight people and give them one of three treatments for a month, after which researchers will give them a typical fast-food breakfast — high in calories and high in fat — which would cause absorption of fat and calories from the gut.
“We’re hoping our (probiotic) treatment will protect the subjects against the absorption — or ‘endotoxin’,” Ward said.
The subjects will get the treatment for a month, then have a couple weeks off, and then go back on the treatment for a month, for a “randomized cross-over” experiment, Ward said.
One researcher has the technology to examine the many different microbes in the person’s gut. “People who are overweight tend to have different proportions of microbes,” Ward said. “We’re hoping to see a shift in that. It will be interesting to see if that happens.”
Over the last few years, researchers have discovered weight gain is associated with higher plasma levels of bacterial molecules, Ward said.
“That molecule causes inflammation and it is guessed that the molecule is getting into the blood from the gut,” Ward said. “And people who are overweight tend to have somewhat more ‘leaky guts.’ Normally, a person’s gut is supposed to be impermeable to anything the body doesn’t want, allowing in only things the body wants.”
He believes: “Probiotics can ‘fix’ this.”