Few things are perfect in this world. A (almost) everything can have a negative side. One of the very few exceptions is the Mediterranean diet, ours, which has proven time and again to be the healthiest in the world. Proof of this, although there are certainly other factors, is that according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2019, the life expectancy of Spaniards is located at 84 years, which puts our country in second place behind Japan with 86. In fact, Spanish men are the men who can expect to live longer on this planet.
The Mediterranean diet has been associated with countless improvements in our health, from a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular accident to a lower likelihood of cancer. Now, a group of researchers at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands have linked our diet to a protection of our intestinal tract, since it would be helping bacteria with anti-inflammatory activity to thrive.
“Linking diet and microbiota gives us more data on the relationship between what we eat and inflammatory diseases.”
Everything is due to a symbiosis relationship with the bacteria we have in our intestine, known as microbiota. However small they may be, there are so many (just over 3 billion) that the chemical reactions they carry out on a small scale become fundamental to our survival. An example of this is that they allow us to eliminate bilirubin, the by-product of the breakdown of old red blood cells. Without these bacteria this molecule would enter a loop, being sent to our intestine and reabsorbed by it.
All this is due to the fact that the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet, such as cereals loaded with fibre, pulses, fish, nuts and wine, are associated with higher levels of beneficial bacteria which, in exchange for these prebiotic foods, generate short-chain fatty acids, which are an essential source of energy for the cells of the intestinal epithelium.
To conduct their study, the researchers used four different control groups, one made up of completely healthy study subjects, another made up of Crohn’s disease patients, another of ulcerative colitis patients, and the last made up of people with irritable bowel. They then analyzed stool samples from each and every one of them and conducted a comprehensive food survey.
The results identified 61 foods that had a direct relationship with the microbial population and 49 correlations between eating patterns and different compositions of the microbiota. To their surprise, the researchers came to the following conclusions:
- The main foods of the Mediterranean diet, bread, legumes, fish and nuts, were associated with a decrease in the number of potentially pathogenic aerobic bacteria. These foods are also associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers.
- Increased consumption of meat, fast food and refined sugars was linked to a substantial reduction in bacterial functions and an increase in the aforementioned inflammatory markers.
- Red wine, vegetables, fruits and fish were associated with increased health and abundance of beneficial bacteria in general.
- Vegetable proteins help in the synthesis of essential vitamins and amino acids while helping in the breakdown of alcohols and the excretion of ammonium.
Relevance: inflammatory diseases
They represent a great expense for all the countries of the European Union. 3 million people on the continent are affected by any of the variants (whether irritable bowel, crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) and it is estimated that the cost to the public health of the countries of the Union for the care of these patients amounts to EUR 5.6 billion. Of course, it is necessary to put this into perspective, because as the researchers themselves say, obesity is the biggest food problem we face in the old continent because it has associated health costs of 81 billion euros.
As the principal investigator of the study, Laura Bolte, explains: “We have investigated the associations between the dietary patterns of various individuals and the intestinal microbiota. Linking diet and intestinal flora gives us more data on the relationship between what we eat and inflammatory diseases. The results suggest that diet is very likely to become an important treatment for these health problems, thanks to its ability to modify the microbiota.