I just applied for the 60-day food challenge!

The Human Food Project has opened a 60-day challenge that involves changing your diet for 2 months, recording it, and sharing the results. I’ll summarize, and you can click here to read the original invitation and apply. (I think they add you to their mailing list even if they don’t accept you, so you’ll be notified of results.)

The researchers are seeking 25-30 super-motivated people to participate. It’s not an easy challenge. However, if you are skeptical about the role of your gut microbes on your overall health, and you have been eating processed food and junk food (or you’ve been eating a healthier diet that includes a lot of whole grains), participating in this challenge will let you experience first-hand (for most of us, the best proof possible) the connection between diet and well-being.

You also get before-and-after data on the composition of your very own gut bugs. They want to measure before and after the 60 days to see if they can shift things, decreasing levels of opportunistic pathogens and increasing the microbes that increase health.

I told you it wasn’t easy. Besides the diet (more on that later), they want you to:

  • spend a lot more time outside
  • keep your home and office windows open to breathe more fresh air
  • spend more time being dirty and in the dirt (gardening, anyone?)
  • spend more time with pets and livestock if you don’t have pets, visit other people’s pets and visit a farm)
  • swim in natural bodies of water rather than chlorinated pools

Basically, they want you to live — for 60 days — with more connection to the wild world, connecting with the “microbial metacommunity.” (Love that phrase!)

Here’s the diet part. There’s no meal plan, but it’s about eating unprocessed foods as much as possible:

  • eat 30-plus species of plants each week (let’s see, I have on hand avocado, kale, onion, carrot, parsley, dill, green onion, raspberry, red pepper, jalapeño, ginger, garlic, collards, tomatoes, cashews, walnuts, spinach, celery, lemon, cabbage, chia seeds, goji berries, olive oil, coconut oil, mint, thyme, rosemary, hemp seeds, capers, and mustard — that’s 30 right there)
  • eat lots of onions, leeks, and garlic
  • eat the whole plant as much as possible (not just the broccoli tops but the tough stems too) — the goal here is to eat 30-80 grams of fiber a day from numerous sources
  • when you cook veggies, take care not to overcook them
  • eat no grains at all, not even rice
  • eat beans and lentils (so this is not a Paleo diet)
  • eat as much meat, poultry, fish, and game as you like, but avoid anything raised on growth hormones or antibiotics (no factory-farmed animal products)
  • only drink filtered water, not tap water

I didn’t see anything about dairy or sugar, so I assume you can include them if you want. Apparently alcohol is also okay, but they recommend you take your “booze cruise” after the challenge.

I applied to do it! I’m not sure I’ll qualify. The researchers say they are very interested in people who are currently eating lots of whole grains. I eat a gluten-free diet. I’ve gone for a few weeks not eating grains of any kind, and then after talking with a friend currently studying nutrition, last weekend I added back quinoa, rice, Ezekiel bread, and the occasional corn tortilla, going for 1-2 servings per day.

Keep ya posted about whether I get in!

Feeding your gut microbes a new key to health

Some of the most fascinating revelations in science these days are coming out of the study of microbes living in our guts.

Michael Pollan wrote an 8-page article for the New York Times Magazine about his experience and some of the findings. Excerpts (and click the link just to see the photo of a dirty baby playing with dirty toys, licking the wheel of a toy car):

It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes — including commensals (generally harmless freeloaders) and mutualists (favor traders) and, in only a tiny number of cases, pathogens. To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this “second genome,” as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome….

A similar experiment [to one performed on mice] was performed recently on humans by researchers in the Netherlands: when the contents of a lean donor’s microbiota were transferred to the guts of male patients with metabolic syndrome, the researchers found striking improvements in the recipients’ sensitivity to insulin, an important marker for metabolic health. Somehow, the gut microbes were influencing the patients’ metabolisms….

Our resident microbes also appear to play a critical role in training and modulating our immune system, helping it to accurately distinguish between friend and foe and not go nuts on, well, nuts and all sorts of other potential allergens. Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their “old friends” — the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved….

Yet whether any cures emerge from the exploration of the second genome, the implications of what has already been learned — for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate. Human health should now “be thought of as a collective property of the human-associated microbiota,” as one group of researchers recently concluded in a landmark review article on microbial ecology — that is, as a function of the community, not the individual.

The saying “You are what you eat” can be modified to “Your health is determined by what you feed your gut microbes.”

Although scientists typically like to say there’s not enough data to say something is once-and-for-all proven, it’s good to know how the growing evidence may have influenced them to make changes in their daily lives. Scientists working in this field were asked about how they’ve changed their own and their families’ lifestyles:

  • They don’t take probiotic supplements.
  • They eat a variety of plant foods — fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • They eat more “prebiotics” that encourage the growth of good bacteria — fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
  • They let their children play in the dirt and with animals.
  • They eliminated or cut back on eating processed foods.
  • They avoid (and help their children avoid) taking antibiotics whenever possible.

Also, they are aghast at the number of Caesarian-section births occurring and recommend vaginal delivery if at all possible, as a means of “inoculating” newborns with their mothers’ bacteria, thus seeding their own gut microbe, enhancing their immune systems, and perhaps giving them an edge on health in other ways.

One of the scientists’ wives gave birth by C-section, and they used cotton swabs to transfer vaginal secretions to the newborn’s skin.

For the same reason, they highly recommend breast-feeding over using infant formula.

Pollan concludes:

I began to see how you might begin to shop and cook with the microbiome in mind, the better to feed the fermentation in our guts. The less a food is processed, the more of it that gets safely through the gastrointestinal tract and into the eager clutches of the microbiota. Al dente pasta, for example, feeds the bugs better than soft pasta does; steel-cut oats better than rolled; raw or lightly cooked vegetables offer the bugs more to chomp on than overcooked, etc. This is at once a very old and a very new way of thinking about food: it suggests that all calories are not created equal and that the structure of a food and how it is prepared may matter as much as its nutrient composition.

This is one of the most fascinating areas of science, with implications that touch everyone, because everyone eats, and it is beginning to look like achieving good health is not as out of reach for many problems as was long thought. I will definitely be posting more on this.