Looks like Harvard University scientists have given us another reason to walk past the cheese platter at holiday parties and reach for the carrot sticks instead: Your gut bacteria will thank you.
Switching to a diet packed with meat and cheese — and very few carbohydrates — alters the trillions of microbes living in the gut, scientists report Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The change happens quickly. Within two days, the types of microbes thriving in the gut shuffle around. And there are signs that some of these shifts might not be so good for your gut: One type of bacteria that flourishes under the meat-rich diet has been linked to inflammation and intestinal diseases in mice.
"I mean, I love meat," says microbiologist Lawrence David, who contributed to the study and is now at Duke University.
"But I will say that I definitely feel a lot more guilty ordering a hamburger ... since doing this work," he says.
Scientists are just beginning to learn about how our decisions at the dinner table — or the drive-through — tweak our microbiome, that is, the communities of bacteria living in our bodies. But one thing is becoming clear: The critters hanging out in our intestine influence many aspects of our health, including weight, immunity and perhaps even behavior.
And interest in studying the links between diet and the human microbiome is growing. Previous research in this field had turned up tantalizing evidence that eating fiber can alter the composition of gut bacteria. But these studies had looked at diets over long periods of times — months and even years. David and his colleagues wanted to know whether fiber — or lack of it — could alter gut bacteria more rapidly.
To figure that out, the researchers got nine volunteers to go on two extreme diets for five days each.
The first diet was all about meat and cheese. "Breakfast was eggs and bacon," David says. "Lunch was ribs and briskets, and then for dinner, it was salami and prosciutto with an assortment of cheeses. The volunteers had pork rinds for snacks."
Then, after a break, the nine volunteers began a second, fiber-rich diet at the other end of the spectrum: It all came from plants. "Breakfast was granola cereal," David says. "For lunch, it was jasmine rice, cooked onions, tomatoes, squash, garlic, peas and lentils." Dinner looked similar, and the volunteers could snack on bananas and mangoes.
"The animal-based diet is admittedly a little extreme," he says. "But the plant-based diet is one you might find in a developing country."
David and the team analyzed the volunteers' microbiomes before, during and after each diet. And the effects of all that meat and cheese were immediately apparent.
"The relative abundance of various bacteria species looked like it shifted within a day after the food hit the gut," David says. After the volunteers had spent about three days on each diet, the bacteria in the gut even started to change their behavior. "The kind of genes turned on in the microbes changed in both diets," he says.
In particular, microbes that "love bile" — the Bilophila — started to dominate the volunteers' guts during the animal-based diet. Bile helps the stomach digest fats. So people make more bile when their diet is rich in meat and dairy fats.
A study last year found that blooms of Bilophila cause inflammation and colitis in mice. "But we didn't measure levels of inflammation in our subjects," David says. "That's the next step."
Instead, he says, his team's data support the overall animal model that Bilophila promotes inflammation, which could ultimately be controlled by diet.
"Our study is a proof of concept that you can modify the microbiome through diet." David says. "But we're still a long ways off from being able to manipulate the community in any kind of way that an engineer would be pleased about."
Even just classifying Bilophila as a "bad bacteria" is a tricky matter, says Dr. Purna Kashyab, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
"These bacteria are members of a community that have lived in harmony with us for thousands of years," says Kashyab, who wasn't involved in the study. "You can't just pick out one member of this whole team and say it's bad. Most bacteria in the gut are here for our benefit, but given the right environment, they can turn on us and cause disease."
Nevertheless, Kashyab thinks the Nature study is exciting because the findings unlock a potentially new avenue for treating intestinal diseases. "We want to look at diet as a way of treating patients," Kashyab says. "This study shows that short-term dietary interventions can change microbial composition and function."
Of course, figuring out exactly how to do that will take much more research.
"The paper has made the next leap in the field," Kashyab says. "With discovery comes responsible. Once you make this big finding, it needs to be tested appropriately."
An anonymous bidder paid $530,000 for 24 Native American items that went on the block this week in Paris. The auction went ahead despite an appeal by the Hopi tribe to cancel the sale of the items it considers sacred. The U.S. Embassy asked for a delay, and the sale was challenged in court — unsuccessfully.
On Wednesday, it emerged that the mystery buyer was the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation, which said in a statement that it planned to return 21 items to the Hopi Nation in Arizona, and three items to the San Carlos Apache.
"These are not trophies to have on one's mantel; they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans," Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, the foundation's vice president and director, said in a statement. "They do not belong in auction houses or private collections. It gives me immense satisfaction to know that they will be returned home to their rightful owners, the Native Americans."
The Annenberg statement said Weingarten decided to step in and purchase the items after a French judge issued a ruling last week rejecting an attempt by the advocacy group Survival International and the Hopi to block the sale.
The decision was praised by Hopi leaders.
"Our hope is that this act sets an example for others that items of significant cultural and religious value can only be properly cared for by those vested with the proper knowledge and responsibility," said Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural leader. "They simply cannot be put up for sale."
Here's more on the story from The Associated Press:
"It was a happy ending for the Hopi tribe following a series of legal setbacks in efforts to delay the sale of the masks, arguing that they represent ancestral spirits and shouldn't be sold. The tribe has said it believes the masks, which date from the late 19th and early 20th century, were taken illegally from a northern Arizona reservation in the early 20th century.
"The U.S. Embassy had also called for a delay so that tribal representatives could come to France to identify the artifacts and investigate whether they have a claim under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, to which both France and the U.S. are signatories."
The sale marked the second time this year that Native American items were auctioned in Paris. Around 70 Hopi items were sold for some $1.2 million in April. As NPR's Tanya Ballard Brown wrote at the time, the "auction [stirred] up controversy on both sides of the Atlantic."
Indeed, the Hopi consider also consider images of the items to be sacrilegious; the AP said it had decided not to transmit photographs of the auctioned items.
And in a story on All Things Considered in August, Laurel Morales of Arizona member station KJZZ, said her work on the story "tested me as a reporter and as a member of my community."
Laurel noted that tribal leaders consider the use of the terms "mask" or "artifact" to describe the objects as offensive. Instead, she noted, "the Hopi call the [sacred objects] Katsina friends, and they are treated as such. The Hopi people use them in ceremonies and dances to call upon the spirits to bring them rainfall, healing and protection."
I grew up reading and re-reading Roald Dahl's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and there were two scenes that always blew my mind.
In the first, Willy Wonka shows the children a stick of gum — "the most amazing and fabulous and sensational gum in the world!" — that conveys the flavors of a meal, one course after the other: tomato soup, roast beef, blueberry pie. Of course, it hasn't been fully developed yet, and when one of the children, Violet, grabs the gum and starts chewing, she expands into a giant blueberry ("Violet, you're turning violet!").
In the other, he shows off a teleporter can send a miniature bar of chocolate to a real TV in someone's living room. Someone watching TV can simply snatch it from the screen. "If these people can break up a photograph into millions of pieces and send the pieces whizzing through the air and then put them together again at the other end, why can't I do the same thing with a bar of chocolate?" he challenges.
Roald Dahl's creations were limited only by the imagination. But real-life innovations are too. And technology from the National University of Singapore aims to kind of do a mix of Wonka's two taste-tests — without, we hope, the unfortunate side effect of turning into a blueberry.
It's called a "digital lollipop," and it sends electrical and thermal stimulation to different parts of the tongue to simulate flavors.
In the prototypes developed so far by Nimesha Ranasinghe and his team, users put silver electrodes on the tip of their tongue, connected manually or with Bluetooth to a control computer. The electrodes then transmit non-harmful electrical currents and slight changes in temperature. The varying currency, frequency and temperature stimulate the tongue's taste receptors, producing the illusion of taste.
So far, they've been able to successfully simulate sour, salty, minty (especially as the electrodes cool down) and spicy (especially as the electrodes heat up) sensations. They've been mildly successful with bitter and sweet sensations, according to a paper published in October.
This, of course, is still far from creating the illusion of tomato soup or anything remotely complex. It's nowhere near the complexity even of chemically synthesized flavors.
But if it worked, it could be used as part of an ultra-sensory media experience where flavors are transmitted remotely to an electronic device in the user's mouth. Imagine tasting food on TV cooking shows, getting rewarded with a treat for succeeding in a video game or sharing a meal with a friend on social media.
"In the future, we believe that this technology will be further enhanced to develop new applications in remote multi-sensory interactions," Ranasinghe and his team wrote in a 2012 research paper. "For example, the possibility of tasting food remotely without physically consuming it."
Science and technology magazine New Scientist writes that it could also be used to help people stop consuming sugary drinks and give diabetics a risk-free sugar hit.
It's interesting to note that the perception of taste comes from more than just taste bud receptors. The researchers say it's also shown to be influenced by texture, color and smell. And we've already written about researchers in Japan trying to simulate scents from an iPhone, so maybe they can collaborate. We'll take some credit if they do.
The essence of the budget deal reached by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is better understood by looking at what's missing, rather than what's included in it.
The agreement by the budget committee chairs is no grand bargain. It's more like a mini-bargain. And all the missing elements are absent precisely because the yawning ideological rift between Washington Democrats and Republicans made it impossible to include those items and still have the votes to get to "yes" and avoid a government shutdown in mid-January.
In short, it's the really hard stuff that didn't make it into the agreement.
So what's missing? Plenty. Here are some of the holes:
- Unemployment insurance extension — Democrats had wanted an extension of unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed in the deal. But Republicans resisted. So an extension isn't in the deal. Democrats hope one can be negotiated outside the Murray-Ryan mini-bargain. This is the season for hope, after all, though it all probably feels like a lump of coal in the the stocking if you're one of those long-term unemployed.
- Taxes — Republicans were adamant that any deal couldn't raise revenue through new taxes so there are none. Instead, the deal raises money to offset reduced sequester cuts through new or higher fees. For instance, the deal essentially raises the maximum aviation security fee a passenger pays for a one-way flight to $5.60 from $5. So flying just got a little more expensive.
- No tax extenders — There are more than 60 tax provisions set to expire on Dec. 31, largely business tax breaks, according to the Tax Policy Center's TaxVox blog. Congress has routinely extended these in the past but the Murray-Ryan budget deal is silent on these tax provisions. That's another area where the budget negotiators kicked the can down the road.
- Entitlement reform — Republicans, mainly, had sought something in the deal to slow the increasing pressure on federal spending from the rising costs of Medicare and Social Security caused by all those aging Baby Boomers. That's a non-starter for many Democrats, so long as Republicans refuse to consider higher taxes on the wealthiest and corporations.
- Postal savings — Some budget experts saw the Murray-Ryan negotiations as a good chance for Congress to achieve savings through more austerity for the postal service, such as ending Saturday service. But such actions have proven unpopular with many voters so the Murray-Ryan budget negotiators avoided that hornet's nest altogether.
- Doc fix — When negotiations started, health care providers were among those hoping that the the Murray-Ryan budget negotiators would solve the perennial threat that Medicare will slash its reimbursements to physicians. That would be the "doc-fix" you hear so much about in Washington. Alas, the deal contains no doc-fix. That will have to come from elsewhere in Congress.
Of Montreal was founded by singer Kevin Barnes back in 1996; ever since, the Athens, Ga., group has continued to explore new creative possibilities, as true artists do. The band recently returned to Morning Becomes Eclectic to showcase songs from its new album, including "Fugitive Air."