PhotoIt has often been said that “you are what you eat.” Mark Heiman, vice president and chief scientific officer at MicroBiome Therapeutics, believes that wholeheartedly.

In a speech given at the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, Heiman advanced a simple theory about the proliferation of chronic disease and obesity, not just in the developed world but in developing nations, which have little or no access to fast food and high-calorie snacks.

Heiman believes that evolving diets over the last 50 years, with people eating fewer types of food on a regular basis, is playing havoc with our gastrointestinal (GI) systems. He calls it a loss of “dietary diversity.”

Ecosystem of the GI tract

Heiman said diet is the principal regulator of the GI microbiome, the ecosystem of the human GI tract. The microbiome is a sophisticated and delicate combination of nutrients that ultimately creates new signaling molecules that allow it to communicate with a person's metabolic and GI regulatory system.

To operate properly, Heiman says the microbiome needs a diverse diet. Over the years, he says humans have narrowed that diversity considerably.

For example, about 75 percent of the world's population eats just 5 animal species and 12 plant species. Of those 12, rice, maize, and wheat contribute 60% of all the calories, he said.

"Like any ecosystem, the one that is most diverse in species is the one that is going to be the healthiest," Heiman said. "In almost every disease state that has been studied so far, the microbiome has lost diversity. There are just a few species that seem to dominate."

But what does that have to do with the obesity epidemic and the explosive growth of type 2 diabetes? Maybe a lot.

Testing the theory

Heiman says people with prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes have a different microbiome makeup than people without those health conditions. To test his theory he created a formulation of inulin, beta glucan, and antioxidants called NM504, and tested it among a group of 30 individuals.

Half of the group received the formulation twice a day. The remainder received a placebo. Heiman says the difference in the 2 groups was stark.

The group getting NM504 saw a shift in the makeup of their microbiome and, consequently, health benefits that included improved glucose control, increased satiety, and relief from constipation. The other group didn't.

With the growth in population, food producers naturally emphasize food that can be grown efficiently and economically – providing more bang for the buck. In the process, some foods common in the past fall out of favor and fall out of diets.

Heirloom foods

Heiman says he is studying these so-called “heirloom” foods and whether returning them to our diets would make any difference. He developed a substance he calls MT303, derived from whole soybean pods, which hardly anyone, anywhere eats these days.

But maybe we should. Heiman says when he tested the compound on obese mice, the rodents benefited by being protected from colon inflammation and decreasing their weight gain.

Actually, Heiman isn't recommending anyone add soybean pods to their diets. He just wants you to think more about what you eat day in and day out.

"How can we get more diversity into our diets?” he asks.

For one, avoid fad diets that require you to eliminate certain kinds of food from your diet. They may provide some short term results, but over the long haul, the more diversity in your diet, he says, the better.

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