Gut bacteria

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The high fiber refrain never seems to stop. We all know that we’re supposed to eat more fiber and focus on whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. But when forced to choose between chewy, crumbly, flavorless oat bran and delicious white buttered toast for breakfast, it’s easy to tune out.

But that fiber isn’t for you. It fuels and sustains your gut microbes — and those in your kids, and grandkids and great-grandkids, too, a study in mice finds. The results suggest that when we pass our genes on to our children, we also pass on a gut ecosystem that reflects our previous dietary choices. (No pressure.)

The Food and Drug Administration recommends that Americans eat about 25 grams of dietary fiber per day. But most people don’t hit that mark. “The average American gets 10 to 15 grams of dietary fiber, ” says Erica Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford University.

If that doesn’t make you feel ashamed, compare your diet to the Hadza, hunter-gatherers who live in Tanzania. “The tubers they’re eating are so fibrous [that people] chew for a while and spit it out, ” Sonnenburg says. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much fiber the Hadza get from the tubers, but Sonnenburg says that some some speculate it’s between 100 and 150 grams per day at certain times of year.

That high level of fiber is reflected in their guts. “What all the studies have found is that these populations who are living a more traditional lifestyle are the best approximation for our ancient microbiota. They all harbor microbiota that’s much more diverse.”

In the human gut, Sonnenburg says, components of dietary fiber called microbiota-accessible carbohydrates, or MACs, are feasting fare. “These are what the bacteria in our guts thrive on, ” she says. The bacteria ferment the carbohydrates, creating fuel, Sonnenburg explains. The chemical products of that fermentation feed the bacteria, but many of them will also get absorbed back into our bodies.

With less fiber in the diet, gut microbes that depend on that fiber might disappear too. But whether that change is permanent, and how this might affect future generations, wasn’t clear. To find out, Sonnenburg and her colleagues created mice that had human gut bacteria. The mice, raised with no natural bacteria of their own, all received a fecal transplant of the same donor human gut bacteria.

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