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Plant-based diet helps protect against chronic diseases

A diet rich in plant-based foods has been linked to an abundance of healthy gut microbes that are associated with a lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The large-scale international study is the first to reveal strong links between gut microbes, diet, and health.

Study co-senior author Dr. Andrew T. Chan is a gastroenterologist and chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“This study demonstrates a clear association between specific microbial species in the gut, certain foods, and risk of some common diseases,” said Dr. Chan. “We hope to be able to use this information to help people avoid serious health problems by changing their diet to personalize their gut microbiome.”

In the Personalized Responses to Dietary Composition Trial 1 (PREDICT 1), the researchers analyzed detailed data on the dietary habits, gut microbiome composition, and metabolic health of more than 1,100 individuals.

The experts found strong evidence that the microbiome is linked with specific foods and diets, and also that these gut microbes influence metabolic biomarkers of disease. Furthermore, the study showed that microbiome content has a greater association with these disease markers than genetics.

“As a nutritional scientist, finding novel microbes that are linked to specific foods, as well as metabolic health, is exciting. Given the highly personalised composition of each individuals’ microbiome, our research suggests that we may be able to modify our gut microbiome to optimize our health by choosing the best foods for our unique biology,” explained Dr. Sarah Berry of King’s College London. 

According to Dr. Chan, two of the strengths of this trial are the number of participants and the detailed information the was collected. “Studying the interrelationship between the microbiome, diet and disease involves a lot of variables because peoples’ diets tend to be personalized and may change quite a bit over time.”

The researchers found that participants who ate a diet rich in healthy, plant-based foods were more likely to have high levels of specific gut microbes. 

“When you eat, you’re not just nourishing your body, you’re feeding the trillions of microbes that live inside your gut,” said epidemiologist Tim Spector, who started the PREDICT study.

Some microbes were tied to a favorable blood sugar level after a meal, while others were linked to lower post-meal levels of blood fats and markers of inflammation. The trends were so consistent, the researchers believe that their microbiome data can be used to determine the risk of cardiometabolic disease among people who do not yet have symptoms.

Overall, the team uncovered a panel of 15 gut microbes that are associated with an increased risk of developing common illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

Some of these microbes are so novel that they have not been described.

“We were surprised to see such large, clear groups of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microbes emerging from our analysis,” said Dr.. Nicola Segata of the University of Trento. “And it is intriguing to see that microbiologists know so little about many of these microbes that they are not even named yet.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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