Gut bacteria may affect obesity risk in youth

Gut bacteria may influence weight during childhood and adolescence, say researchers, who found that the population of gut microbes among obese children and teenagers differs to that of normal-weight youth.
[Intestinal bacteria under a magnifying glass]
Researchers identified different gut microbiota in obese children and teenagers, compared with normal-weight peers.

Senior author Dr. Nicola Santoro, of the Department of Pediatrics at Yale University in New Haven, CT, and colleagues report their findings in the Journal of Endocrinology & Metabolism.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over the past 30 years, obesity rates have more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents.

These rising rates have fueled a major public health concern; youths who are obese are more likely to be obese in adulthood, which may raise their risk for stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

As such, there is a need to identify strategies that may help prevent or treat childhood obesity, and Dr. Santoro and team believe they may be one step closer to such a strategy.

Their study included 84 children and adolescents aged 7-20 years, of whom seven were overweight, 15 were normal weight, 27 were obese, and 35 were severely obese.

The researchers analyzed the gut microbiota – the population of microbes living in the intestine – and blood samples of all participants; blood samples were assessed for levels of short-chain fatty acids, which are produced by some forms of gut bacteria.

Participants also underweight magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which allowed the researchers to measure body fat distribution.

Four gut microbiota groups more abundant in obese children, teens

From their analysis, the researchers identified eight groups of gut microbiota that were associated with levels of body fat.

Four of the eight gut microbiota groups were much more abundant in children and teenagers who were obese, the team reports, and they were found to digest carbohydrates much more efficiently than those found in normal-weight counterparts.

When it came to the remaining four gut microbiota groups, the team found obese children and teenagers possessed these in significantly smaller amounts, compared with normal-weight peers.

What is more, children who were obese had higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in their blood than children who were a normal weight, and the team found a link between these fatty acids and fat production in the liver.

These results, the researchers say, suggest the liver can convert short-chain fatty acids into fat, and this fat accumulates in adipose tissue.

“This association could signal that children with certain gut bacteria face a long-term risk of developing obesity,” says Dr. Santoro.

While these findings may not be welcome news, there is a brighter side; Dr. Santoro told Medical News Today that the results could lead to new ways to combat obesity in children and adolescents.

“These data try to explain the physiopathology behind the relationship between gut flora and obesity. In future, the identification of species underlying this association might lead to targeted treatments.”

Dr. Nicola Santoro

MNT asked Dr. Santoro about any plans for further research into the link between gut microbiota and weight among youth.

“The next step would be to understand the fate of short-chain fatty acids derived from the gut flora and how they are integrated in and modulate the human metabolism,” she told us.

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