Sugar in the diet alters the microbiota and ends up producing diabetes and obesity

A mouse study found that dietary sugar alters the gut microbiota in ways that lead to metabolic disease, pre-diabetes, and weight gain.

The Western diet high in fats and sugars can cause obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, but the exact mechanism by which the diet triggers these changes in the body is unknown. In recent years, it has been discovered that gut bacteria may have a much greater influence than previously thought.

The intestinal microbiota is essential for the nutrition of all animals. Bacteria digest food for us and produce compounds that we need and that control our body. Researchers at Columbia University decided to take a deeper look at what the effects of a Western-style diet were on the microbiota of laboratory mice.

After four weeks on the diet, the animals showed symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including weight gain, insulin resistance and glucose intolerance. Their microbiomes have changed dramatically, with populations of segmented filamentous bacteria (common in the gut microbiota of rodents, fish and chickens) dramatically decreasing and other types of bacteria increasing as a result.

The researchers found that these fibrous bacteria that were lost were essential for the animals’ health. The decrease in filamentous bacteria reduced the number of Th17 cells in the gut, immune cells that defend the body against metabolic diseases, diabetes and weight gain.

These immune cells produce molecules that slow the absorption of harmful lipids in the gut and decrease intestinal inflammation. In other words, they protect the gut from fats that can cause inflammation.

This study also answers the question of who is to blame for obesity, fat or sugar? The answer is definitely sugar. When the researchers fed the mice a high-fat, sugar-free diet, they retained protective Th17 cells and did not develop obesity or pre-diabetes, even though they ate the same number of calories.

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However, removing the sugar didn’t help the mice, which didn’t have filamentous bacteria to begin with. Removing the sugar had no beneficial effect, and the animals became obese and developed diabetes. This suggests that some popular dietary interventions, such as minimizing sugars, may only work well in people who have certain bacterial populations in their microbiota.

In such cases, certain probiotics may be helpful. When the mice were given supplements of these fibrous bacteria, they regained Th17 cells and protection against metabolic syndrome, despite consuming a high-fat diet.

Although people don’t have the same fibrous bacteria as mice, researchers believe that other people’s bacteria may have the same protective effects. The study reveals that there is a complex interaction between diet, microbiota and the immune system, which is key to obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and other conditions. This means that it is not only necessary to modify the diet, but also to restore the intestinal microbiota or immune system.


Dietary sugar-induced microbiota imbalance disrupts immune-mediated protection from metabolic syndrome

Photograph: uwe hermann

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