The Skinny on Prebiotics and Probiotics


With summer right around the corner, you may be starting to think about “suiting up,” and shedding those few pesky pounds that just won’t go away. Clearly, this has become an increasing source of frustration for many Americans. In fact, a recent report emphasizes just this. The incidence of obesity in the general population in the United States is steadily rising but fewer and fewer adults are attempting to moderate their weight. It seems as if a significant segment of our population has given up on dieting.

How can we blame people for not persisting in a repeated pattern of failure. Typical diets that only concentrate on portion control or a limited food palette consistently fail and the reason is that these measures don’t address the entire story.

Microbiome and Weight Control
New research has revealed a number of surprises about weight control. The greatest of these has been the realization that on a biological basis, we are not the single creature that we assume. Instead, our bodies are an astounding combination of our own innate cells and a vast number microbial inhabitants.

And these microbes are not just passive hanger’s on. Our microbes form essential aspects of our gut, respiratory system, and skin and outnumber our own personal cells by a factor of 10 to 1. This later fraction is our microbiome, and recent studies are revealing an extensive metabolic interplay between these crucial microbes and our own cells.

Contemporary research has revealed that our microbes make a significant contribution to our subjective responses to food and sensation of satiety that directly influence obesity. For example, there are differences between the microbiomes of lean and obese individuals. Overweight adults and children tend to show a decrease in microbial diversity compared to leaner individuals. Certain foods can influence this crucial gut microbial composition and some supplements, called prebiotics and probiotics, can do likewise.

Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics are typically non-digestible fibers, such as oligofructose or inulin, that beneficial microbes can utilize for their metabolism. Examples of prebiotic foods that contain these fibers include: raw chicory root, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus and wheat bran.

Probiotics are those foods that directly add some useful strains of bacteria that are elements of a healthy gut microbiome. These include: natural yogurts, dark chocolate, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and miso.

Both prebiotic and probiotic foods can guide the gut microbiome towards a pattern that is the most healthful for that individual. Prebiotic and probiotic foods and some supplements have been specifically demonstrated to positively affect weight management. For example, the use of prebiotic supplements are associated with improved satiety in overweight adults. In another just-completed Canadian study, these positive results were documented in obese adolescents. Their use of prebiotic supplementation was associated with weight loss and a significant reduction in calorie consumption.

Until recently, it was believed that appetite and satiety were only dependent upon an intrinsic gut/brain axis of circulating molecules from the cells that line our gut. Our assumption had been that only our own gut tissues were sending signals of fullness and satisfaction to specific centers in the brain. Instead, it is clear that our gut microbes are directly participating in that circuit by giving off bioactive molecules that tell us whether we are full or still hungry, and surprisingly, this circuit is dependent on a complex interplay between our gut cells and our microbe’s assessment of their own needs.

The foods we eat can alter these microbial communities in our digestive tract. In turn, our complex human behaviors such as anxiety, learning, memory, satiety and appetite are influenced. In each of these circumstances, it is not typically an issue of eradicating one type of microbe in favor of another. Instead, it is always a matter of the balance of all of the varying participants within the gut microbial ecology that leads to the proper proportion of the correct microbes for our best health.

Adjusting this balance is crucial, as it is now understood that microbial gut imbalance, called dysbiosis, can be associated with obesity and its consequences, such as insulin resistance, Type II diabetes, hypertension and elevated blood lipids.

With this blizzard of new information and the vast range of alternatives that are emerging, what is the best thing to do, right now, for general good health and to assist in practical weight management? Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this complex problem based on a wealth of sound scientific data. Adjust your diet, as much as you can, to include the best sources of prebiotic and probiotic fiber — and consider adding an effective prebiotic or probiotic supplement.

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Dr. William B. Miller Jr.
Dr. William B. Miller, Jr., has been a physician in academic and private practice for over 30 years. He is the author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome. He currently serves as a scientific advisor to Prebiotin. For more information, visit


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