Digestive Health & Enzymes | Jon Barron's Blog

Date: 05/14/2009    Written by: Jon Barron

Probiotics, Body Fat, and Clinical Studies


I am always ranting about the questionable value of clinical studies. True, I often cite them in my blogs and newsletters, but often, more as launching points for discussion than for their actual value. I know clinical studies are the sine qua non of medicine, and that people often challenge alternative medicine chanting, "Where are the clinical studies? Where are the clinical studies" But I believe that long-term anecdotal evidence is worth at least as much as a clinical study -- especially when you repeatedly get two studies to authoritatively come to the exact opposite conclusion. Case in point.

A new study out of the University of Turku in Finland offers yet another reason to take probiotics -- if you're pregnant. The study of 256 expectant women found that those who took probiotics in the first trimester of pregnancy had less belly fat a year after giving birth than those who didn't take the supplements.

The women were divided into three groups. The first group received dietary counseling, take-home low-fat foods, and the probiotics. The second received the counseling, food, and a placebo, and the third group received only the placebo. Twelve months after having their babies, the women were measured for waist circumference and body fat. The probiotics-users fared considerably better than the other groups. They had a twenty-five percent central-obesity (fat belly) rate, compared to 43 percent for those who got no counseling and no probiotics, and 40 percent for those who got the counseling but took placebos. Also, those who had taken probiotics measured an average 28-percent body fat compared to 30 percent for the women who had no counseling and no probiotics.

Study director Kirsi Laitinin stresses that these results offer an important reason to take probiotics since belly fat is particularly pernicious. "The results of our study, the first to demonstrate the impact of probiotics-supplemented dietary counseling on adiposity, were encouraging," she said. "Central obesity, where overall obesity is combined with a particularly fat belly, is considered especially unhealthy."

The researchers plan to continue their investigation, focusing on whether the benefit is transmitted to the infants in utero. Says Latinin, "The advantage of studying pregnant women to investigate the potential link between probiotics and obesity is that it allows us to see the effects not only in the women, but also in their children...Bacteria are passed from mother to child through the birth canal, as well as through breast milk, and research indicates that early nutrition may influence the risk of obesity later in life. There is growing evidence that this approach might open a new angle on the fight against obesity, either through prevention or treatment."

And so it is that probiotics now (at least based on this study) are being considered a possible magic bullet to inoculate infants against obesity. Though the medical mainstream typically eschews supplements of any sort, when it comes to losing weight, the search is on full-force to find an alternative to exercising and eating right -- the obvious but apparently more unpleasant solution. The sad thing here is that (although the researchers don't note it) even the subjects who took probiotics ended up, on average, too hefty. That 28-percent body fat ratio teeters on the edge of obesity; and the 25 percent central-obesity rate is still high.

But that's the good study. In 2007, Nature published a study that came to the exact opposite conclusion -- that probiotics make people fat! The Nature study found that "good" bacteria (in other words, the bacteria found in probiotics) are more efficient at extracting caloric value from food than "bad" bacteria, meaning that if you have more "good" bacteria than "bad," you'll add more calories eating a typical meal than will people who have more "bad" bacteria. Plus, a companion study found that the ability to lose weight seems to be transferable -- at least in mice -- if you transfer "bad" bacteria from the bowels of lean mice into fat mice.

As I pointed out at the time in my blog post, the research teams in those studies probably drew flawed conclusions from their data, but point to remember today is that the researchers involved and the media that reported on the studies clearly promoted the fact that probiotics make you fat. This, of course, is the exact opposite conclusion reached by the Finnish study. One study scorns probiotics as the weight-gain devil, and another hails probiotics as the weight-loss Messiah. The conclusion I draw from these studies, on the other hand, is that clinical studies are not necessarily all that reliable.

While clinical studies offer a starting point for understanding what works and what doesn't, they certainly aren't foolproof, nor are the scientists interpreting the studies. Quite the contrary! The medical establishment pulls out the clinical-study card as if it can't be challenged, as if because mainstream medicine relies on such studies, modern medicine is far superior to alternative therapies that stake their claims on anecdotal evidence provided by hundreds of thousands of people over many, many years. But as I so often point out, studies can (and often do) go far astray and lead to the release of pharmaceuticals that later prove ineffective, or even worse -- dangerous and/or deadly.

In the meantime, if you base a conclusion on all the studies cited above, only pregnant women should use probiotics. Right!


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    Submitted by Anna M on
    May 15, 2009 - 1:39am

    I've been reading about this study as well, and am very interested in the possible link between prenatal nutrition involving probiotics and tendency for obesity later in life (for the child). As a huge probiotic fan I eagerly look for any new research that highlights the benefits of these beneficial bacteria. I just wonder that many pregnant women might not ""go there"" and take a probiotic supplement because there's not enough research on it yet...
    Here's to more research and better living!
    - Anna M.

    Submitted by D.L.Post on
    June 7, 2009 - 2:13pm

    I'm not a medical person, but I can not attribute my overweight to fat accumulated from 4 pregnancies! I never heard of probiotics back in the 60's! I went back to original weights after each one within a year. AFTER I had a complete hysterectomy is when the pounds just stuck like glue and haven't abated yet! I am now 73 and over 100 lbs overweight. SOMETHING has to be involved with the hormonal changes brought on by surgery or menopause. I take probiotics now because I also had BC and hope it helps. But who knows anymore. The consumer certainly doesn't! Not sure MD's do either!

    Submitted by Joe Campisi on
    June 8, 2009 - 2:04am

    It makes sense to replace inferior GI tract flora and fauna with friendly probiotics since probiotics strengthens the immune system, and displaces unwanted fungus, yeast, viruses, and bacteria.
    Both viruses and bacteria have been associated with obesity.
    I have had success with Irvingia, but I would recommend an assortment of polyphenols. It seems polyphenols improve insulin dysregulation, as various fruits and berry studies have found this effect.
    Personally I lost 70 lbs of body fat by walking 3 miles a day, and eliminating starch, wheat, milk, and soy; while increasing heavy cream (for my maca & ginger & maple syrup tea), 85% chocolate bars, nuts, seeds, fish oil, borage oil, conjugated linoleic oil (CLA), coconut oil, and red palm oil in my diet.
    It may seem counter intuitive to increase the fat in your diet to lose fat, but I believe the lack of starch, increased variety of polyphenols and increased variety of fatty acids, all contribute to a more balanced metabolism.
    I am 53 years old and was obese for the last 30 years. I am delighted to be down to my college weight of 165 lbs.

    Submitted by Jon Barron on
    June 7, 2009 - 5:25pm

    There are certainly those who swear by Irvingia, but Kristen and I played with it for 6 weeks to see what it would do. Neither one of us lost either one ounce or one inch.

    Submitted by Margi on
    June 7, 2009 - 3:50pm

    Recently, I did the Intestinal Cleanse and then started taking your Probiotics. This has been the best thing that I have ever done for myself. I am not sure why, but it seems that my body functions better in several different ways. I believe that the food that I eat is being digested and assimilated better and I seem to be losing some of the extra rolls around my middle. I am 67 years old, and in the last couple of years it has been almost impossible to lose around the middle! I am about 30 lbs overweight.
    I recently read that Irvingia, an extract from a West African plant, is supposed to help get rid of belly fat. Is this true or just hype?

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