New research shows that a childhood diet can affect one’s health all the way into adulthood. The UC Riverside study found that eating excess sugar and fat as a child can change your gut bacteria permanently. Researchers discovered that this held true even if a person eats healthier later in life. A paper summarizing this study on mice recently got published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. 

The groundbreaking study revealed that adult mice fed an unhealthy diet as juveniles had a less diverse microbiome. Furthermore, these mice showed a decrease in the number of gut bacteria as well.

“We studied mice, but the effect we observed is equivalent to kids having a Western diet, high in fat and sugar and their gut microbiome still being affected up to six years after puberty,” said UCR evolutionary physiologist Theodore Garland.

The microbiome consists of the total bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses living both on and inside humans and animals. Most of these microorganisms reside in the intestines and help to bolster the immune system. They also assist in breaking down food and helping to synthesize essential vitamins and minerals.

A healthy body consists of both pathogenic and helpful organisms. However, an unhealthy diet, high stress, sedentary lifestyle, illness, or antibiotic use can alter this balance. Then, the body becomes vulnerable to disease because the immune system can’t function properly.

How the study worked

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The research team divided the mice into four different groups and observed impacts on their gut bacteria in the study. The four groups included the following:

  • one consumed a standard healthy diet
  • another ate an unhealthy “western” diet
  • one group received a running wheel for exercise
  • another group had no access to exercise

After three weeks on a specific diet or exercise routine, the mice returned to their regular diet. They also went back to not exercising, as this is standard for laboratory mice. At the 14-week mark, the team observed the amount and diversity of gut bacteria in the mice.

What the study on childhood diet and impacts on gut bacteria revealed

The team found a much lower number of bacteria like Muribaculum intestinal in the mice fed a Western diet. This type of bacteria helps with carbohydrate metabolism, which ensures a steady supply of energy to cells. Their analysis revealed that the gut bacteria responded to the amount of exercise the mice got as well.

The Muribaculum bacteria increased in mice given a healthy diet who had access to the running wheel. However, it decreased in mice on a Western diet, no matter if they exercised or not. The team believes that this bacteria and the family of bacteria it belongs to may affect its host’s energy levels. Researchers continue to study the other functions of this type of bacteria.

Another study found that a very similar bacteria species to Muribaculum increased in number after five weeks of treadmill training. This implies that exercise alone can impact the number of gut bacteria present.

However, UC Riverside researchers found that childhood diet impacted the microbiome much more than early-life exercise habits. Garland’s team wants to perform an additional experiment, taking samples more often during the study period. This will allow them to gain greater insight into when the microbiome begins changing and how long these changes last.

Researchers say that no matter when these changes first occur, the microbiome’s long-lasting effects were striking. In the study, they knew that even after 14 weeks, the mice’s microbiome still hadn’t returned to normal.

Garland says the study can be summed up with this: “You are not only what you eat, but what you ate as a child!”

Childhood diet plays an important role in overall health.

What you eat affects not only your physical health but your mental and emotional health as well. Unfortunately, many kids today grow up without vital nutrients due to poverty, parental influence, and other factors. The obesity rates have skyrocketed not only in Westernized countries but in developing countries also.

According to the CDC, here are statistics about the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S. in 2015-16. These are the most current numbers. However, they’ve likely risen since then.

For children and adolescents aged 2-19 years:

  • The prevalence of obesity was 18.5% and affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents.
  • Obesity prevalence was 13.9% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% among 12- to 19-year-olds. Certain populations are more vulnerable to childhood obesity.
  • Hispanics (25.8%) and non-Hispanic blacks (22.0%) had higher obesity prevalence than non-Hispanic whites (14.1%).
  • Non-Hispanic Asians (11.0%) had lower obesity rates than non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics.

Obesity levels have been rising over the past 40 years due to unhealthy diets and lack of exercise. Childhood diet impacts a person for life, and eating nutrient-poor foods puts them at risk for physical and mental illness. As the gut houses 70% of our immune system, it makes sense that a more robust microbiome would correlate with better health. Another study shows that a childhood diet rich in protein and fiber increases gut bacteria, and therefore, immunity.

Most people know that eating processed foods, sugar, and high-fat foods cause health problems. However, scientists have just begun to understand how diet impacts our gut bacteria and immune systems. Hopefully, this research will encourage parents to feed their children healthy foods to enhance their microbiome.

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Final thoughts: childhood diet significantly impacts adult health and microbiome

A groundbreaking study from UC Riverside researchers found that what a child eats affects them for life. It can alter their microbiome permanently, even if they begin eating healthier in adulthood. Therefore, it’s crucial to feed kids plenty of fiber and protein to increase their gut bacteria. Sadly, many children today suffer from malnutrition, despite obesity rates skyrocketing.

If children learn healthy habits early in life, they will carry these over into adulthood. Since diet impacts the gut more than exercise, parents should emphasize healthy eating at mealtimes.