The Food Science of Happiness

THE FOOD SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

WORDS BY DAMIEN MAT

You may have thought you were eating alone last Friday night, but when you eat, you are never alone. Unfortunately I’m not alluding to your boyfriend you haven’t met yet, rather your intestinal microbiota:the approximate 100 trillions of cells divided into about 200 different species that inhabit the ending parts of our digestive tract.  This living organism equates to at least 10 times the number of our own cells, comprises 26 times more genes than our own genome, weighs more than our brain and is living off the fibres, lipids, proteins and carbohydrates that have passed the upper levels of our digestive tract. This collection of microorganisms are thriving on these nutrients, constantly producing new nutrients that other microbes metabolise or that our cells incorporate. Fermented foods is a rather downsized example of the process that is occurring that could be one of the most complex and beautiful examples of symbiosis.

Microbiota is dramatically changing how scientists and nutritionists approach gut flora and a growing number of health benefits are being linked to maintaining a ‘healthy microbiota,’ while certain diseases and allergies have been linked to being a result of an unbalanced gut flora. Microbiota richness is essential for your health and wellness as certain vitamins: B12, B9, K and even C are produced by the microbiota which may have even helped our ancestors survive transient nutritional deficiencies. It’s also been shown to maintain the homoeostasis of iron as it takes care of mitigating deficient or excessive amounts of this essential nutrient. The important role of the microbiota has been illustrated in numerous studies which prove that obese people have a depletion in the diversity of their microbiota suggesting a correlation with the state of the microbiota.

“So how can you improve your microbiota? Nutritionists confirm a mostly vegan, unprocessed diet for a richer ecology of the gut microbes compared to a traditional Western diet which is correlated with alarmingly high diet-related disease rates.”

The microbiota is also appearing as a major player for our mental health as new studies suggest a connection between the gut flora and the brain. Links between eating disorders, anxiety, stress, depression, autism and an ‘unhealthy microbiota’ are being further investigated as scientists have discovered that the gut environmental bacteria can produce neurochemicals which can target neurons in the brain, ultimately influencing our mood. Demonstrated in numerous studies, mice inoculated with a certain strain known to produce the neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) revealed similar responses to the strain as if they had taken Prozac, a commonly known antidepressant and mood stabilizer. 

So how can you improve your microbiota? Nutritionists confirm a mostly vegan, unprocessed diet for a richer ecology of the gut microbes compared to a traditional Western diet which is correlated with alarmingly high diet-related disease rates.

Reflecting on this remarkable symbiosis, it’s important to remember a superfood or pill won’t singularly heal your gut flora or improve your mental wellbeing. Foods are not just their composition (a collection of nutrients). They are embedded in a complex matrix, which plays an important role in the way nutrients are delivered to the digestive tract which is determined not only by the composition, but the structure of the food you consume. It’s this aspect which is often neglected in nutritional studies as health institutions focus on only highlighting the compositional value of a superfood or pill forgetting the importance of the structure to increase or decrease the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients. Consider this, and take into account the intestinal microbiota metabolising all the excess nutrients and you are left with a very complex equation.

“This living organism equates to at least 10 times the number of our own cells, comprises 26 times more genes than our own genome, weighs more than our brain and is living off the fibres, lipids, proteins and carbohydrates that have passed the upper levels of our digestive tract.”

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