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Can bacteria predict obesity?

10th March 2008

"Good bacteria" found in yogurt may be a predictor of whether or not a baby will grow up to be overweight, a new study has found.


The mix of bacteria in a baby's gut could make all the difference to weight gain later in life, according to a team of researchers from the University of Turku in Finland.

Babies with high numbers of bifidobacteria and low numbers of Staphylococcus aureus may be protected from excess weight gain, according to the study published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Bifidobacteria are prevalent in the guts of breastfed babies, which may also help to explain why breastfed babies are at a lower risk for later obesity.

The risk of excess weight or obesity in childhood has been found in several studies to fall from around 22% to 13% in children who were breastfed.

Originally, the children studied were being evaluated to measure the effects of probiotics, the bacteria found in live yogurt and related products, on allergic diseases.

The Finnish researchers chose a group of 25 people who were overweight or obese at 7 years of age, and 24 of normal weight at the same age.

The children had been evaluated at birth, five more times before age 2, and then again at ages 4 and 7. The researchers in the original study had also tested for intestinal microbes in fecal samples collected at 6 months and 12 months.

The average bacterial counts of bifidobacteria when taken at 6 months and 12 months were twice as high in those who were a healthy weight as in those who got heavy.

Levels of fecal S. aureus were also lower at 6 months and 12 months in those of a healthy weight than in those who put on extra pounds.

The study authors speculated that S. aureus might trigger low-grade inflammation, which may also contribute to developing obesity.

Gut bacteria in adults have been found in separate studies to be altered in obese adults who lost weight, pointing to a possible therapeutic intervention using intestinal flora.

However, experts said the latest study did not pinpoint exactly why intestinal bacteria are linked with the development of obesity.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St Louis and president of the American Dietetic Association that parents should not ignore good role modelling of healthy food choices, proper portions and regular physical activity, with no magic answer to weight loss.

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