Spoiler Alert: Maybe, maybe not.
Right now, like many, you may be reflecting on the rapidly receding holiday season, ruing that you ate more, and were less physically active, than usual.
Perhaps you’ve even needed to loosen your belt a notch or two.
Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one.
In fact, a 2012 survey reported that weight loss was the number one New Year’s resolution for Americans (for 21% of those who set goals).
Other popular focuses were on improving finances (14%), exercising (14%), and getting a new job (10%).
Dr. John Norcross, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Scranton, PA, estimates that between 40 and 50% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but his research suggests we’re not always successful at keeping them.
Dr. Norcross wrote the popular book Changeology, so he knows a thing or two about the psychology of behavior change.
In fact, he says, around a quarter of people make it no further than one measly week into the year before their resolve crumbles, and over a half have fallen off the wagon six months on.
Now, the food you ate toward the end of 2016 has probably had an impact on your microbiome, but is there any evidence that making deliberate changes to the bacterial composition of your gut can help you lose weight?
Well, perhaps – but as ever, it’s a very qualified perhaps.
Let’s look at one particular piece of research in detail, containing cautiously good news for women (sorry, guys). And along the way, we’ll also shine a light on the peculiar world of the patenting of bacteria.
This particular study was conducted by scientists from Laval University in Québec, Canada, alongside researchers from Nestlé in Switzerland (bet they had good chocolate in their meetings), and was published in the British Journal of Nutrition in December 2013.
Essentially, it explored the impact of swallowing a probiotic supplement – in capsule form – on obese men and women over a 24-week period.
The study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trial. Half of the 125 participants received a probiotic, while the other half were administered an inert placebo, all in identical capsules.
During the first twelve weeks of the trial, participants were placed on personalized diet plans, which involved them consuming 500 calories per day less than they would need for weight maintenance.
This was followed by twelve weeks on a strict weight-maintenance diet.
So, what happened?
Well, as we hinted earlier, women in the study appeared to benefit from the probiotic supplement.
Those in the placebo group lost an average of 5.7 pounds in the first twelve weeks, but those receiving the probiotic experienced a greater average weight loss of 9.7 pounds.
What’s more, though, the probiotic recipients continued to lose weight after they stopped getting the supplement and were back on their weight maintenance diet. They ended up with an average loss of 11.5 pounds. Those on the placebo lost no further weight during the second half of the study.
But what about the men?
Disappointingly, those in the placebo group actually lost more weight than the participants who received the probiotic supplement during the first twelve weeks.
And by the end of 24 weeks, both groups of men had lost about the same – around 12.5 pounds.
Professor Angelo Tremblay, the study’s leader, said they didn’t know why the probiotics had no effect on men, but hypothesized that it may have been a question of dosage – or perhaps the study period was too short.
Even the study’s positive results on females have been questioned by some experts, who pointed out that the experiment was carried out on a very specific type of woman (e.g. none were pregnant, smoked cigarettes, had drug or alcohol problems, or took vitamins or supplements of any kind).
However, given such possible limitations, what was in those probiotic capsules?
They each contained 10 mg of a powdered version of a strain of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, known as Lactobacillus rhamnosus CGMCC1.3724, which provided 162 million colony-forming units.
This powder was accompanied by 300 mg of a mix of oligofructose and inulin (both dietary fibers/prebiotics) designed to help the active probiotic make it through the stomach’s acidity and into the gut.
Curiously, this particular strain of bacteria has since been patented by Nestlé.
In general, bacteria occur naturally, so they cannot be protected by patents, but in 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that microorganisms created in the laboratory by genetic manipulation could indeed be patented.
This ruling followed an eight-year legal battle that began in 1972 after a microbiologist at General Electric created an oil-eating bacterium in the laboratory, and it allowed Nestlé to follow the now widely-adopted practice of obtaining a patent for a bacterial strain.
If you’re wondering about the “CGMCC1.3724,” it’s all to do with the Chinese General Microbiological Culture Collection (CGMCC), which is based in Beijing and acts as a kind of Library of Congress repository for those who wish to patent microorganisms.
The “1.3724” is simply the strain number, a label for a particular entry in the CGMCC catalog.
While this may be way more information than you’ll ever need, it fascinated us.
Nestlé refers to its bespoke strain as LPR, and uses it in certain yogurt products sold in European markets.
Professor Tremblay, however, believes that the probiotics found in dairy products in North America could have a similar effect to the Nestlé strain. (Don’t tell the company’s patent attorneys.)
Diet or not, good luck with your own New Year’s resolutions.
We’ve made one, too.
We’ll be doing our level best to keep you informed and, we hope, entertained with our weekly newsletters.
See you next time, and thank goodness for elasticated waists.