VIEW: Gut health – a new era for Dietitians

A guest post from Anita Tait, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Microba

“Gut health” is an emerging phrase that is increasingly showing up in media, blogs, on social media and in health circles. As people look for solutions to their digestive symptoms or the missing piece to their health puzzle, gut health is turning up more and more.

Researchers have shown that the gut microbiome – the community of bacteria living in your large intestine – are linked to many health and disease states. The gut microbiome and the substances it produces are known to regulate appetite, control glucose levels, maintain a healthy gut barrier and contribute to many other areas of health and disease.

Your gut microbiome has also been linked to health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, mental health and obesity. Increasingly, diet and nutrition are being hailed as the main ways to influence the gut microbiome. This is where Dietitians are playing an important role in gut health.

Your diet is important

I regularly work with Dietitians who are using metagenomic sequencing to analyse their patient’s microbiome in clinical practice. Dietitians are choosing to explore this area with their patients further, because research indicates that the biggest influence on the gut microbiome is diet.

We know that when it comes to influencing change in the gut microbiome, it’s really a two-way street. Our existing microorganisms influence how we respond to our diet and lifestyle, however, we can actually influence change in these microorganisms through dietary and lifestyle interventions.   

Population-based nutrition research encourages the consumption of all the food groups because of the wide range of important vitamins and minerals that our body needs to function and thrive. However, more people are turning towards plant-based diets and increasing their consumption of these food groups as more research emerges, supporting the role that the fibres and prebiotics found in these foods play in maintaining a healthy gut.

Through nutrition education, we often talk about increasing the consumption of a range of different types of prebiotics which are mostly found in plant-based foods to help nourish and encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

What we understand about the microbiome through research is that it’s constantly evolving. Research has already established the impact of some well-known sources of prebiotics such as fructooligosaccharides and resistant starch, to name a few. These prebiotics encourage the growth and function of our beneficial bacteria, and as science on the impact of prebiotic foods is developing at a rapid pace, our understanding of which foods are considered as beneficial prebiotics will continue to evolve.

We are finding the food industry is tapping into the increased demand for food products to align with research about the importance of gut health. We are seeing a surge of prebiotic food products on our supermarket shelves and it’s up to us as healthcare professionals working in this space to navigate through the nutritional value of these foods and to determine the benefit to the gut microbiome.

Your gut microbiome tells a story

Another way that healthcare professionals are looking at the impact of diet on the gut microbiome is through analysing stool samples with companies such as Microba. Why would we consider looking at someone’s gut microbiome? We now have the ability to actually measure the microorganisms within the gut and their functional potential through metagenomic sequencing. We know the functional potential is the measure of the potential for the gut to produce microbial metabolites which can influence our health. Therefore, knowing which metabolites can be produced by our microbiome gives us an understanding of how these metabolites are influencing risk factors for different health conditions.   

Dietitians have an important part to play in dietary behaviour change in clinical practice to help positively influence better health outcomes for individuals. Metagenomic sequencing allows tangible insight into how particular metabolites may be affecting an individual’s health. When you can see how your diet may be influencing your health, you are more likely to have the motivation to change. 

We know that there is now evidence that links up the physiology and function of the gut microbiome with metabolic disease. Research about this link is allowing us to broaden the scope of the clinical application of microbiome analysis in Dietetic practice. We can now expand our thinking to investigate the function of the gut microbiome for not only those patients with gut symptoms but those that have existing chronic disease and those that may be at risk of developing metabolic conditions also. As Dietitians, we can now take this link and translate this evidence into patient-focused dietary interventions within clinical practice.

Dietitians and gut health

Working as a Dietitian in the space of gut health, I often see patients with gastrointestinal symptoms which can have a tremendous impact on their quality of life. Getting to the root cause of what may be triggering gastrointestinal issues often requires various investigations. Thus, it’s very important as a practitioner to have the training and knowledge on the various pathophysiological tests that are required to firstly rule out more sinister conditions. Working in this area of Dietetics is both fascinating and rewarding as I learn a lot with every patient case and I also get to have a positive impact on someone’s health and life. Keeping up with the latest clinical research about the gastrointestinal system is vital within my profession, however, working at Microba allows me to be at the forefront of the latest microbiology science and technology. This has broadened my knowledge into how the microbiome can influence health and I’m constantly in awe of how this science is advancing our understanding of the human body. 

Dietitian Day is celebrated on the 18th September in Australia. The 2020 theme is “Dietitian’s make a difference”.

About the expert

Anita Tait is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Pharmacologist and has worked within corporate health, food industry and the pharmaceutical industry for the past 10-years. Anita specialises in IBS and other Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders and is an advocate for the clinical application of microbiome profiling in Dietetic practice. Anita works at Microba and is involved in supporting Dietitians in the clinical utility of microbiome analysis in practice.

Image description: Anita Tait, Accredited Practising Dietitian Microba. Headshot, white shirt, blue jacket, brown hair, hand on hip.