PM: May you please elaborate some more on your story about how you got interested in studying the therapeutic role of our microbiota in our health? You briefly mention it in the book, but I think the shift your research has taken from understanding the biological mechanisms of pathological bacteria (ex. salmonella) to understanding the complex but mostly beneficial relationship the many bacteria in our gut have with our own health is fascinating .
BF: We were working on diarrhea, and had a lab retreat on Galiano, and during a brain storming session someone started asking 'what about all those other microbes in the gut?". This was really early days, so we came home and designed some experiments to see if enteric pathogens, and the rest is history.
PM: You state in the book that one of the primary dietary assaults on our microbiota is excess refined sugar which feed the 'bad' bacteria. However, sometimes you briefly mention in your book about avoiding dietary fat. It is now known that Ancel Keys's work linking saturated fatty acids (SFA) with poor health outcomes was inherently flawed and the data was manipulated to strengthen the desired relationship. However, there is increasing research coming out showing that there really is no association between SFA and negative health outcomes. Recently there was a meta analysis in the BMJ (see article here) showing no reliable association between SFA and all cause mortality or CVD mortality, and the incidence of CHD, ischemic stroke, and type 2 Diabetes. However, there is a positive relationship between all the aforementioned events and the consumption of trans fat. I am not very well versed with the literature examining dietary consumption and the microbiota, but is their relationship between fat consumption and the microbiota's health similar to what is found in other fields (such as the BMJ meta analysis above)?
BF: I don't know this field well. Read "the big fat surprise" if you really want to get the scoop on fats and carbs. My take on it is that fats are not the problem (Americans have cut 12% of their fat from their diet, yet look at what has happened), and it is the simple carbs (white flour, white sugar) that are predigested, get absorbed in the small intestine, thereby starving the microbes lower down.
PM: You mention the benefits of probiotics throughout the book. However, as you mentioned, there is a huge market and therefore a lot of selection. Are there any specific pointers or things you would recommend someone look out for when picking a probiotic? I imagine like most unregulated industries, there are some really good products and some really bad products.
BF: Go to "letthemeatdirt.com" and click on "probiotics". (Here is the link if you want to go check it out now) There is a link to a meta study that lists all the probiotics that have been tested in western medicine standards (double blind, placebo, controls…), and rates the strength of evidence and references. A few (post antibiotic diarrhea for example) actually work.
PM: All the evidence surrounding the microbiota seems to point towards a "critical" period early in life for its optimal development. Unfortunately, all of us have very little control to our antimicrobial exposure, access to outdoors, and diet during this period in our lives. Therefore, if someone felt like their microbiota was lacking, would you still recommend someone follow the core principles in your book you laid out to optimize the development of the microbiota in children?
BF: Yes, varied diet low on red meat, such as mediterranean, and don't be scared of getting dirty.
PM: You recommended the "5210" diet (5 servings of vegetables and/or fruit, two hours or less of screen time, one hour of physical activity, and zero sweetened drinks) for children, but I’m sure most adults would benefit from this diet as well. As a full fledged academic, do you have any advice to reducing screen time? I do my best to minimize screen time but as a medical student, I find I am spending much more time on the screens than I would like. Is it less avoiding screen time, and consciously making time to spend outdoors?
BF: I wish, as we are all glued to our screen. Schedule exercise time, and screen free time, and stick to it. Read a book, go for a run…
PM: What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to an up and coming academic?
BF: Work hard and play hard. Publish as much as possible. And enjoy the ride.
B. Brett Finlay, PhD, is professor of microbiology at the University of British Columbia and a world leader in how bacterial infections work. He has been studying microbes for over thirty years and has published over four hundred and fifty articles. Also a founder of the biotech companies Inimex, Vedanta, and Microbiome Insights, Brett is Officer of the Order of Canada—the highest Canadian civilian recognition. He lives in Vancouver, BC, with his wife, who is a paediatrician, and has two grown-up kids. If you are interested in learning more about what research is going on check here. If you want to learn more about Let Them Eat Dirt make sure to check out their website, facebook page, and twitter.
Let Them Eat Dirt was one of the most enjoyable books I have read recently. I devoured it in two days. One of the challenges with writing such a book is to make it accessible to a general audience without simplifying and losing the essence of the science. The authors of this book did the perfect job of walking on this fine line. If you are interested in what YOU can do to take control of your health by taking care of your gut microbiota, then this book is for you!
If you can’t sustain it’s not worth it,
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I am a medical student who is obsessed with the Be Activated Muscle Activation Technique, mastering movement and understanding what makes humans thrive.