Probiotics May Help to Manage Childhood Obesity

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Some 340 million children and adolescents were overweight on a global scale in 2016, and this puts them at an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, chronic diseases and even early death. Research is suggesting that a potential solution to the growing burden may be found by looking at gut health. 

According to a small study presented at ECE 2020, the 22nd European Congress of Endocrinology, the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium breve in combination with a calorie-controlled diet may help children and adolescents with obesity to lose weight. 

Gut microbiota is populated by over 100 trillion microorganisms within the gastrointestinal tract, and this bacteria is responsible for maintaining immune function, normal metabolism and protection against pathogens. Diet is considered a key influence/driver of gut microbiota and imbalances are linked with disease and infections. 

Probiotics consist of live bacteria and other microorganisms “that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body” and can be found in yogurt, other fermented foods and dietary supplements, according to the US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Some of the bacteria can help with digestion, vitamin production and destruction of disease-causing cells. 

Bifidobacteria are most commonly used in probiotics as they naturally live in our stomach/intestines and help to protect against pathogens, regulate the immune system, and provide nutrients by breaking down carbs into a fiber. Additionally, this strain produces short-chain fatty acids that play a role in regulating gut health, hunger, and weight. 

100 children and adolescents between the ages of 6-18 with obesity and insulin resistance were studied. All participants were placed in a Mediterranean style diet with a calorie limit that was tailored to their needs, and they received either a probiotic or placebo for 8 weeks. 

Both groups experienced a reduction in BMI, waist circumference, blood pressure, insulin resistance, and concentration of E.coli bacteria within their gut. Those in the probiotic group experienced greater weight loss, insulin sensitivity, and reduced E.coli concentration. Surprisingly the effects of the probiotics continued for a few weeks after the participants stopped taking it. 

“Many studies show that when you stop taking the probiotic, it vanishes in the intestines and doesn’t have long-lasting (effects),” said Dr. Christopher Moran, a pediatric gastroenterologist and director of the Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition Fellowship at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, who wasn’t involved in the study, and is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Parents who are interested in caring for the child’s gut microbiota for weight management and overall health should look towards whole food sources while avoiding heavily processed packaged foods as well as drive-thrus. 

“Eating a varied diet and avoiding lots of processed foods is the most important thing,” Moran added. “The more processed foods that you eat, the more likely you are to have a bad effect on the microbiome. That could potentially lead to obesity but also potentially (gastrointestinal) distress and inflammatory conditions of the GI tract such as Crohn’s disease.”

There is data that already exists suggesting that obesity might (be) associated with microbiome changes, although a lot of that data doesn’t describe whether the microbiome changes came first … or the weight changes happened and then microbiome changes,” Moran said. “We also know that many large dietary changes (especially restriction diets) have a large effect on our microbiome.

“Although probiotics are generally regarded as safe for most people, the majority of probiotic trials have not reported safety data as rigorously as these data are reported in pharmaceutical trials,” said Dr. Geoffrey Preidis, a pediatric gastroenterologist and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.

“So the risk of side effects might be higher than we think,” Preidis, who wasn’t involved in the study, added. “Parents should consult with their children’s doctors prior to starting any probiotic regimen.

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