Diet & Dogma
There’s a simple genius to Dr. Deanna Gibson’s research: What we eat – or, more precisely, what we excrete – is who we are. In plain language, poop can tell us some very significant things about what’s going on in our bodies.
Gibson is head of the Microbiome and Inflammatory Disease Research lab on UBC’s Okanagan campus. Along with her husband, Sanjoy Ghosh, she leads a team of investigators who focus on the gut, its health, its contents, and its end products. This work may lead to new therapies for chronic inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, colitis and Crohn’s disease.
The results of her research are both shocking and fascinating, and go against popular conceptions of nutrition that have dominated our understanding of what’s good for us and what isn’t for most of the last hundred years.
Gibson’s interest in the gut (and the route she took to become known as The Poop Lady) began at an early age. “Members of my family have been subject to gastrointestinal issues for as long as I can remember,” she says. It’s what sparked her interest in microbiology and started her on her current path.
Conspiracy Theories Anyone?
“It works in the rodent model,” she says, “because we can change the conditions to test certain ideas, and the life spans are quite short. But it seems clear that the same results will happen in human babies.” As well, a mother’s diet is reflected in the immune cells and microbes expressed in her breast milk, and these have a direct impact on her offspring’s immunity and gut microbes.
“No one expected a child’s long-term health to be so directly impacted by the mother’s diet during pregnancy,” she says. “It was an amazing result.” To the scientific community, it seemed to go against accepted nutritional dogma.
“No one expected a child’s long-term health to be so directly impacted by the mother’s diet during pregnancy. It was an amazing result.” To the scientific community, it seemed to go against accepted nutritional dogma.
In fact, according to Gibson, nutritional research is often considered to be on the flakey side of science, partly because of bizarre claims made by some less-than-scientific researchers, and partly because, as we learn more, old sureties are replaced by better evidence. In 2011, Gibson won a Grand Challenges Exploration Grant from the Gates Foundation to investigate the relationship between a mother’s diet and a child’s long-term health, a line of research characterized in media reports as “weird,” and “science fiction.” That attitude, along with a long history of quackery – magic elixirs, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, celebrity diets and various other forms of snake oil – makes for a Doubting Thomas atmosphere in the nutritional field.
Though Gibson and her team continue to delve into the relationship between mothers’ guts and offsprings’ poop, her current research runs right at the heart of eyebrow-lifting nutritional research, and threatens to turn the field – and your diet – on its head. It’s all about fat, and no topic in the nutritional canon is more rife with suspicion, second guessing and sleight-of-hand than the function of fat in the human diet.
Good Fat/Bad Fat
The Trans Fats Story
No topic in the nutritional canon is more rife with suspicion, second guessing and sleight-of-hand than the function of fat in the human diet.
Omega 3 fats (found in fish oils, nuts and some grains) have been touted as “good” fats, and, as a result, have been added as supplements to many foods, including infant formula. Omega 3 supplements are claimed to improve brain function, vitamin A absorption (resulting in better eyesight) and general heart health, while Omega 6 oils are promoted as good for heart health and its positive impact on diabetes. Saturated fats are just bad.
All suspect, says Gibson. Her metadata shows that Omega 3 supplements have no impact on fetal health, brain function or vision development and suspicions that Omega 6 fats play a role in the development of diabetes are now coming to light. Even scarier, Gibson is now investigating data that shows Omega 3 supplements are actually detrimental to a baby’s health, because they encourage the development of a harmful microbiome.
The Trouble With Butter
What’s a person to do with all this seemingly contradictory information? Balance, says Gibson.The team’s research now points to saturated fats as being a possible solution to the imbalance in our gut created by a surfeit of Omega 6 fat. “Saturated fat also causes inflammation in the gut,” she says, “but we’re discovering that it has all sorts of other, positive effects.” It encourages the production and health of the gut’s microbiome, and helps to mitigate the effects of inflammation. It also doesn’t have the negative effects that some previous, erroneous research said it did have.
“Saturated fats aren’t toxic,” she says. “They actually have the ability to promote healing. My recommendation of the ideal diet for those with, and without, IBD is to have a good balance, including olive oils, some saturated fats, and a little fish oil – but from fish in the diet, not supplements.” We should, she suggests, start cooking with butter again, drinking whole milk and eating cheese. In moderation, of course. And if the Doubting Thomases need more proof of the validity of this advice, they’ll find it in the diaper contents of the next generation.
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