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Defy the microbe overlords that make you fat

Monday, May 26, 2014 - 12:01 am

When it comes to existential angst, I can deal – sort of -- with the idea that life may exist on other planets, that God might not be what we think he is, and that it's time to stop fretting about climate change and start doing what we humans do best: Adapt.

But what REALLY creeps me out is increasing evidence that microbes are more in control of this thing called a body than I am.

“We harbor the notion that we're sentient beings,” writes Rich Roll, author of “Finding Ultra.” “But recent studies provide a new perspective, challenging just how much control we truly have when it comes to our cravings.”

Roll, a champion triathlete and nutrition guru, cites a 2007 Swiss study that revealed people who crave chocolate harbor different microbial colonies in their gut than those who don't.

A more recent Chinese study found that a fat-gobbling bacterium plucked from the bowels of a 385-pound man and transplanted into lab mice made the rodents obese.

“There is in fact a very direct and causal connection between our intestinal microbial ecology and the way we think,” Roll writes. “These microbes message our brains, effectively telling us what to eat.”

A pessimist could interpret these findings as yet another example of why it's “impossible” to lose weight. But Roll disagrees, suggesting that the process can work in reverse as well – if you feed your gut bacteria healthier foods, then the microbes that prefer that diet will proliferate at the expense of the junk food-craving critters.

The Chinese study of the fat-gobbling bacterium, Enterobacter, appears to back him up. The test subject, fed a diet of whole grains and low fat, high-fiber foods, lost 113 pounds in 23 weeks. More importantly, notes the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal, which published the study in its December 2012 issue, Enterobacterwas completely wiped out – while helpful bacteria, like the Bifidobacterium found in yogurt, thrived.

I hate the idea of housing all those microbes. They outnumber the human cells in our body by a factor of 10 to 1, which means they're responsible for at least part of that number we see on the scale.

On the other hand, I love the idea of being a food god, choosing who lives and who dies in my bacterial ecosystem.

Microbes may very well “instant message” my brain about what they think I should eat, but I'm the one who physically puts food into my mouth. If I think in terms of a “craving” – a word that comes with baggage from my fat years – I'm likely to give in.

But if I think of it as a command from the microbe overlords, it's much easier to deny the request.

And if you do it consistently for just two or three weeks, they really will quit pestering you. I haven't eaten French fries in nearly four years and don't miss them at all. All this time I thought it was because of my “iron will power,” but I guess it has more to do with a power shift in my gut.

A book that inspired me during my French fries withdrawal referred to this process as “exterminating cravings.” Taylor LeBaron, author of “Cutting Myself in Half: 150 Pounds Lost One Byte at a Time,” was a teenage video game addict who gleefully imagined he was “killing dinosaurs” every time he wiped out an overpowering junk food addiction.

Turns out LeBaron may have had the right idea, but the wrong species.

Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.