The January 27 issue of New Scientist reports on a study by Swedish researcher Fredrik Nystrom, in which he had 18 volunteers eat the same type of fast food diet that Matthew Spurlock ate for his film “Supersize Me.” Unlike Spurlock, who ate all his meals at McDonald’s for a month (which caused him to gain weight and even have liver trouble), some of Nystrom’s study subjects stayed thin. A few of them even ended up with LOWER levels of “bad” cholesterol! What’s going on here?

There may be genetic reasons that some of us struggle with our weight. One of them is a set of receptors that react enthusiastically to high carb, high fat food (as well as to marijuana). Another is a special kind of bacteria in your intestines.

Researcher Louis J. Aronne says, “What many people have traditionally viewed as a lack of willpower could actually have a biochemical basis [due to]? the body’s counterbalancing mechanisms that stops people from losing weight.” In other words, when you diet or exercise, you increase your hunger so that you eat even more to compensate. Aronne says, “When you eat a high-fat, high- carbohydrate food, it activates the endocannabinoid system, leading you to eat even more. The endocannabinoid system interacts with other hormones to make you feel hungrier, increases body fat, and drives weight gain. We now know that [this] system is overactive in obese people. In one study, obese women were found to have higher levels of endocannabinoids than lean women.”

Other new research has found a link between obesity and the microbial communities living in our guts. The relative abundance of two of the most common groups of gut bacteria in our intestines gives our bodies the an increased capacity to harvest calories from our diet. Researcher Jeffrey Gordon says, “The amount of calories you consume by eating, and the amount of calories you expend by exercising are key determinants of your tendency to be obese or lean. Our studies imply that differences in our gut microbial ecology may determine how many calories we are able to extract and absorb from our diet and deposit in our fat cells.”

What this means is what fat people have always suspected: Not every bowl of cereal may yield the same number calories for each person. People could extract slightly more or slightly less energy from a serving depending upon their collection of gut microbes. “The differences don’t have to be great, but over the course of a year the effects can add up,” Gordon says.

These studies raise a number of questions, according to Gordon. “Are some adults predisposed to obesity because they ‘start out’ with fewer Bacteroidetes and more Firmicutes in their guts?” he asks. “?Can we intentionally manipulate our gut microbial communities in safe and beneficial ways to regulate energy balance?” In other words, a successful diet may start with manipulating the bacteria in our intestines.

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