10/31/2016 01:02 EDT | Updated 10/31/2016 01:02 EDT

Canada's Food Guide Needs To Reflect Our Microbes

Health breakfast - with homemade granola, waffles, muffins,almond,hazelnuts,various fresh fruits, berries and milk on old wooden table. Health food concept .Top view.
OlgaLarionova via Getty Images
Health breakfast - with homemade granola, waffles, muffins,almond,hazelnuts,various fresh fruits, berries and milk on old wooden table. Health food concept .Top view.

Last week, the Minister of Health, the Honourable Dr. Jane Philpott announced the Canadian Food Guide is about to undergo a revision. The goals of this undertaking are to strengthen healthy eating recommendations and to communicate guidance for health professionals, policy makers, and the general public. The new policy is expected to roll out starting next year.

The changes, according to the government, are necessary to align with the current evidence supporting healthy eating habits. This is obviously a good step forward. However, there appears to be a significant gap in the focus of the effort. The guidelines are only examining the effect on the human body, which from a biological perspective, is only taking care of about 50% (or less) of who we are.

On average, our bodies are comprised of about 30 trillion human cells give or take about 10 trillion. However, there is a greater number of microbial cells living inside of us. Tens of trillions of these are bacteria, consisting of several hundred different species.

Over the last decade, researchers have gained insight into how certain gut microbes, particularly bacteria, influence our health. They have learned the mere presence of some species can affect us. Yet the majority of effects on wellness come as a result of the byproducts these organisms make.

Some molecules, such as short chain fatty acids like butyrate, can influence our body in a positive way. It helps to maintain a number of biological processes from immune balance to the way we metabolise sugars . There even is evidence to suggest the chemical may help stabilize our moods.

In stark contrast to butyrate, another byproduct of many species, known as lipopolysaccharide, or LPS, has the opposite effect. LPS is also known as bacterial endotoxin, which should provide some clue about its function in the body. Although there are many consequences to LPS in the body, the most important in terms of health is inciting long-term inflammation, which is linked to chronic disease. At one time, the list of ailments associated with inflammation was short but over the years, chronic inflammatory processes have become the lynchpin for diseases ranging from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Using these two molecules as an example, overall health would benefit from maximizing the number of bacteria forming butyrate and minimize the number of species producing LPS in the gut. Unfortunately, there are only a few ways to accomplish this. One is to undergo fecal supplementation, which is as unsavoury as it sounds. The other is to eat a diet geared to foster beneficial bacteria and keep the inflammatory ones at bay. Depending on our diet, the diversity of these species can change and alter our state of well being.

Over the last few years, several books and other guides geared towards the public and healthcare communities have been published. However, they are not readily available in every home and workplace. To achieve this, a national strategy is needed so all Canadians know how to maintain microbial health.

Thankfully, most of the work required to identify the right foods for the right bacteria has been done. Clinical trials regarding diet as a whole, as well as individual components have provided the evidence the government needs to put together an appropriate policy. All that is needed is the impetus to include our microbial population in the development of the guidelines.

This is where Canadians come into the picture. Unlike previous revisions of the Food Guide, Minister Philpott has asked each and every one of us to get involved in the process. She wants to know what is important to us in order to define the scope and span of the recommendations. This is the perfect opportunity to let her know we care about our microbes as much as we do ourselves.

All you have to do is head over to the government's Food Guide Consultation website:

And click on the "Participate Now" button. You'll be asked several multiple choice questions based on what you would like to see in the revision. Most will focus on the importance of certain aspects of the guide.

There also will be opportunities to add comments and suggestions. This is where people can speak up for those hungry bacteria. People can let the Minister know the guidelines should support those butyrate producers and prevent too many of the LPS formers.

With enough insistence, the government will realize our health is dependent on what we feed our microbial population. This hopefully will convince them to consider microbial health and make mention of our bacteria. This not only will ultimately help us all maintain proper health, but also, for the first time ever, ensure that the Food Guide is truly taking care of 100% of who we are.

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