“Once the diversity of the microbial world is catalogued…it will make astronomy look like a pitiful science.” Julian Davies

Our 90 trillion microbes are hungry. What do they eat?

As discussed in our previous post, each human body has +/- 100 trillion cells. 90% of these cells are microbes.  As we dig into all thing’s “microbe” throughout this series, let’s first investigate what these microbes need to thrive and bloom into a healthy ecosystem.

FOOD – along with water, food is critical for existence. Without it, the body can only survive 8-21 days. Fortunately, food is abundant in the U.S., and it is big business.  A recent report, commissioned by a group of 23 food and agriculture organizations, found that more than one-fifth of the nation’s economy is linked, either directly or indirectly, to the food and agriculture sectors with a total economic impact of $7.06 trillion annually. This is big business, and the food producers are intensely fighting for a spot on your dining table. More realistically, they are fighting to be your favorite fast-food restaurant as you hustle to the next meeting, appointment, or kids soccer practice.

 In order to get your attention, food companies spend over $12 billion on television ads with about 80% spent on their unhealthiest offerings – think, sugary soda, candy, and unhealthy snacks. The consequences are devastatingly apparent with the U.S. having extremely high levels of obesity and other health related issues. This cost an estimated $50 billion, or 20% of U.S. health care costs, directly associated with poor diets.

That brings us to the importance of understanding food.  Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for an organism.  As omnivorous, humans historically secured food through two main methods: hunting and gathering and agriculture.  As agriculture technologies increased, humans settled into agricultural lifestyles.  The abundance of food has morphed into variants of “food-like” substances, with most containing less and less nutrients and more empty calories.  The “super-sizer” order has had the exact result its name implied with super-sized waistlines. 

Food processors have focused their food-like offerings on the 10% of the human cells, creating offerings packed with added refined sugars. The food producers exploit the human brain’s release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical, as a reward for eating. This encourages more consumption and can potentially lead to a raised dopamine tolerance, resulting in more and more consumption to avoid withdrawal. While this is occupying our brains, our 90% cells (microbes) are hungry. The typical meal, although high in empty calories, is starving the most important cells – our microbiome.

So, what do we feed our microbes? – FIBER – Our ancestors consumed 150 + grams of fiber a day from a variety of sources. Fast forward to 2021, and only 15 grams of fiber from 1-2 sources are ingested, a mere 10% of our ancestor’s intake.

What is Dietary Fiber?

Dietary Fiber is a plant-based nutrient, a type of carbohydrate. Unlike other carbs, it cannot be broken down into digestible sugar molecules.  Therefore, fiber passes through the intestinal tract relatively intact into the colon and small intestine where trillions of our microbiome reside.  So, when the doctor tells you to eat more fiber but does not explain why – it is because Fiber is food for our 90%, not just the 10% human cells.  When our 90% is fed, they do wonderful things for us. The next time you get ready to take a bite, think about how much of that food is for your 10% human cells and how much is for the 90% microbiome. 

Next time we will discuss different types of fiber, the best sources for information on feeding these cells, and we begin to discuss how our microbiome protects us.