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The Microbiome, Nutrition and Health: Assembling Pieces of a Complex Puzzle

Andrew Neilson, PhD

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

Superfoods are largely a myth. Kale, cocoa, blueberries, salmon, quinoa. Healthy? Yes. On their own, however, none of these foods will be the secret ingredient to a healthy diet.

It’s understandable why so many of us seek a superfood. The idea of a magic bullet for health is a lovely, if unrealistic, one. When we read news about the latest food study, it’s tempting to take the results to their extreme, to go from healthy food to superfood. Eating blueberries is healthy. Eating nothing but blueberries is not. Our bodies, unfortunately, are too complex for that.

One aspect of this complexity is the microbiome. Andrew Neilson, an associate professor at N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute, studies the complex relationship between food and the gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that live in the intestines and throughout the body. These bacteria are a critical component of our health – which is fortunate, because there are so many of them. The bacterial cells we host in our body outnumber our human cells by at least ten to one.

The gut microbiome is crucial: It has the metabolic and physiological potential of an organ. Yet it’s unique to each person, almost like a person’s DNA. The mix of microorganisms are a result of genetics, diet, and environment. Even more, it changes throughout our lives as our food, medications, and even our living arrangements change. The fluid, complex nature of a microbiome is one reason why superfoods don’t exist: If our guts are all so different and thrive on the diversity of bacteria, how could one food be the magic bullet for all of us?

“The gut microbiome, this complex ecosystem, is so important,” says Dr. Neilson. “It helps to think about your gut like a crowded neighborhood. Then think about some bad dudes who want to move into that neighborhood,” Dr. Neilson says. “Because it’s already crowded, there won’t be a lot of space or resources for those bad actors. Same thing with food-borne illness coming in – the naturally-occurring “good” bacteria in the gut actually helps to prevent pathogenic bacteria from coming in.”

The microbiome doesn’t only interact with potential “bad dudes” like pathogenic bacteria, but also helpful, nutritional compounds. Dr. Neilson studies how compounds from food interact with the microbiome, and then, what health impact they create.

Nutritional Compounds in the Microbiome

When we eat, most of our food’s nutritional compounds will be absorbed into the body before making it to the intestine to interact with the gut microbiome. Some compounds, such as flavonoids (a class of phytochemicals, or compounds derived from plants), will make it down that far, however. What we don’t have a good understanding of—and what Dr. Neilson is studying—is what happens next.

“We’re interested in the interaction of those compounds with the microbiome,” Dr. Neilson says. “How do the compounds from the foods that we eat change the nature of the microbial community in the gut? Does that confer health benefits? And does your unique microbiome mean that you will respond better (or worse) to these dietary compounds than someone else?”

Dr. Neilson researches one of the more popular sources of these compounds, cocoa. Dr. Neilson is researching the potential of cocoa—when incorporated into a comprehensive diet—to create a positive health impact due to its interaction with the microbiome. Does cocoa interact with the microbiome? If so, does this create a health impact? Who is most likely to see this health impact?

“With our research on cocoa, we’re trying to understand how we can contribute to overall healthy diet patterns. We’re looking for something that’s enjoyable, but also has scientifically validated health benefits,” says Dr. Neilson. “We want to connect this to health outcomes.”

As scientists begin to make connections between foods and certain markers in the microbiome, this research has the potential to lead to individualized medicine. Scientists may be able to predict which foods—and possibly, which medicines—are most helpful to which people, based on their microbiome markers. While there isn’t one food that will help everyone, there may be different comprehensive diets that are more suited to helping certain people.

And Now, the Good News

While a superfood may not hold the key to a long, healthy life, Dr. Neilson says that variety in the diet is beneficial. Your diet plays a large role in the health of your microbiome, which—along with other factors like genetics, exercise, and environment—plays an important role in overall health. Researchers like Dr. Neilson are discovering the extent to which individual compounds interact with the microbiome and the health impacts they may create in certain people. In the meantime, however, a varied, nutrient-rich diet along with a holistic approach to health is our best bet.

“Your diet absolutely does shape your microbiome, but the idea of the superfood is a myth,” Dr. Neilson says. “Moderation is everything. As someone once told me, you can have anything, you just can’t have everything.”

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