What role does the gut microbiome play in obesity?

05 July 2016

New Zealand researchers are exploring the role of the gut microbiome in Pacific and Pakeha women to try and identify its role in obesity prevention and metabolic health.

The research, carried out by Massey and Otago University researchers, will examine the ways in which the billions of microorganisms present in our gut may affect metabolism and fat storage. 

The researchers are studying women only, partly because increased obesity in women of child bearing age is associated with increased obesity in their children.

Lead researcher, Professor Bernhard Breier from Massey University’s School of Food and Nutrition, says the researchers hope to untangle the hidden role of gut microbes.

“Microbial communities in our intestines change how we balance glucose levels in our blood, how we store fat, and how we respond to hormones that make us feel full or hungry. The wrong combination of members of the microbial community can set the stage for obesity and metabolic disease.

“Advances in DNA sequencing technology let us analyse genetic material harvested directly from these microbial communities [microbiome] in our intestines, providing unprecedented insights into how the gut microbiome and the human host interact to support a healthy bodyweight or trigger obesity and disease,” he says.

Researchers will test whether taste perception, food choice and dietary intake, eating behaviour, sleep and physical activity modify the gut microbiome and its impact on obesity.

Professor Breier says the outcomes will help to guide future intervention studies, which may include specially designed foods that offer health benefits that may affect the gut microbiome.

“Our theory is that the more diverse the microbial communities and their genetic makeup are, the better equipped we are to withstand the pressures of our Western environment.  We know that obesity drivers include the over-consumption of highly palatable energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods, such as Western dietary patterns with high intakes of processed foods. These dietary changes have had a profound impact on our gut microbiome and new evidence suggests the microbial communities in the gut may play a crucial role in obesity.”

This research, a first for New Zealand, will study the gut microbiome in two populations with markedly different metabolic disease risk — Pacific and European women.

“We are focusing on women because trends in obesity show a significant rise in women with major weight gains between the ages of 20 and 40. The long-term health impact is alarming. Increased obesity in women of child-bearing age is associated with acute and chronic adverse health outcomes, including increased obesity risk for their children,” Professor Breier says.

For more information about the study, visit their website.