What is left unsaid by many articles on these healthy oldsters is the variety of fiber-rich foods in their diets.
This essay was initially distributed only to subscribers and patrons, but at the suggestion of some longtime subscribers, I’m sharing it with all readers. I hope it helps everyone manage our most precious wealth, our health. CHS
One of the most astonishing developments in science is the profound impact of the microbiome, the 100 trillion microbes that live within us, on our health. It’s now clear that this immense colony directly impacts our immune system, our sense of well-being, our appetite, weight, and so on.
Scientific American summarized this new research thusly:
Leading scientists now think of humans not as self-sufficient organisms but as complex ecosystems colonized by numerous collaborating and competing microbial species. From this perspective, human health is a form of ecology in which care for the body also involves tending its teeming population of resident animalcules.
Poorly functioning microbiomes are now linked to Parkinson’s disease and a host of auto-immune disorders as well as metabolic disorders such as diabetes. (It seems that the majority of people who develop Parkinson’s suffer from chronic constipation.)
I’ve been following this research since 2012, when the new understanding started to attract funding and media coverage.
This article is a good introduction to the topic: “How the Western Diet Has Derailed Our Evolution: Burgers and fries have nearly killed our ancestral microbiome.”
I came away from Sonnenburg’s office with a sense that I’d glimpsed a principle underlying our relationship with microbes. Wringing calories from wild, fibrous fare required a village– microbes specialized in distinct tasks, but each also dependent on its neighbors. The difficulty of the job encouraged cooperation between microbes. When you withheld fiber, though, you removed the need for that close-knit cooperation. The mutually beneficial arrangements began to fray.
In their recent book, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health, the Sonnenburgs argue forcefully that boosting fiber intake is the best way to cultivate a healthier community of microbes.
Here is an excerpt from their book: Gut Feelings–the “Second Brain” in Our Gastrointestinal Systems:
There are hundreds of articles on this rapidly expanding field; here are a few that illustrate the breadth of research:
“How Gut Bacteria Tell Their Hosts What to Eat:” By suppressing or increasing cravings, microbes help the brain decide what foods the body “needs”
Here is the key take-away of this research in my view: diversity and variety are essential features of healthy ecosystems, including the one inside us and the social-economic ecosystems we inhabit.
Given what we know about the microbiome, it makes excellent sense to eliminate / restrict processed foods. But it also makes excellent sense to consume as wide a variety of fiber-rich fruits and plants as possible, and to consume a wide variety of types of foods in moderation, as a means of supporting a diverse and healthy microbiome.
It’s also wise to spend time outdoors, working in the garden and soil if possible and weather permitting, as there is evidence that suggests living in sterile interiors increases allergies and other disorders. This makes sense, as our genome (including our digestive/immune ecosystem) is adapted to living outdoors, not to living in sterile indoor environments.
Much has been written about human populations that are healthy far into old age: people who live in the Greek islands, Okinawa, etc. It has been widely noted that these elderly people eat real food (i.e. not refined/processed), much of which they grow themselves. They also live in a healthy social ecosystem of friends and sharing.
What is left unsaid by many articles on these healthy oldsters is the variety of fiber-rich foods in their diets: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, etc. Yes they eat meat and fish, and in the Mediterranean they drink wine, and these are integral to the variety in their diet. But the core of their diet is fiber-rich plants. This aligns with what we know about healthy microbiomes and thus healthy immune systems.
Of related interest:
“The Island Where People Forget to Die” and Social Ecosystems (October 9, 2016)
Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.
My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)
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Image credit: The Conversation