On a given day, we're liable to shovel all kinds of junk into our greedy pie holes, and it all ends up in our guts. Down there in the pit of despair, trillions of bacteria go to work in an effort to keep the whole system moving and keep you healthy. Chase your bagel and cream cheese with orange juice and espresso? Sounds gross if you were to mix all of that up in a blender, but your stomach can handle it!
And the more diverse the bacteria in your stomach—collectively known as the microbiome—the healthier you're likely to be. The microbiome helps produce vitamins, can influence the risk of obesity, and can even help fend off certain diseases. And good news: Some Belgian and Dutch researchers just published two studies that found eating and drinking fun stuff like chocolate, wine, and coffee could be good for your health.
Researchers at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology collected stool samples from 3,500 volunteers and have so far analyzed 1,100 to see how diets affect the populations of microbes in the gut.
"[That] is a lot, because Flanders only has a population of around 6 million," lead researcher Jeroen Raes told the Washington Post. "And we didn't pay any of these people. They were all just interested in the science."
With the help of researchers at the University of Groningen, they then compared their findings to a Dutch database. They found that the microbiomes of the respective subjects were reflective of local diets, with the Belgians having microbes associated with beer and chocolate and the Dutch showing links to a milk-heavy diet.
"We were very excited to see that, because that's a very important dietary distinction—we like our chocolate. They like their milk," Raes said.
More importantly, they found that small changes in diets could lead to pretty drastic changes in gut health. Yogurt and buttermilk led to a more diverse microbiome, but full-fat foods like butter decreased diversity. And, in a big win for humankind, red wine and coffee increased diversity. Diets heavy in carbohydrates decreased diversity.
The researchers identified 60 factors that could influence microbiome diversity. But they aren't entirely sure what that will mean in the long run—more research needs to be done. "But there is a good correlation between diversity and health: greater diversity is better," said Alexandra Zhernakova, a researcher at the University Medical Center Groningen.
Can we eat our way to a perfect gut? That remains to be seen, but if eating chocolate and drinking wine can get us close, Raes and Zhernakova shouldn't have trouble recruiting subjects for future studies.
"Maybe there is not one perfect gut microbe composition," Raes told the Post. He said he was frustrated that he didn't find a perfect gut. But keep your chin up and keep hunting, Raes—El Dorado is out there.