We are all told that if we eat healthy foods, we’ll be healthy. The problem with this global statement is that each body processes food differently – different people can have vastly dissimilar responses to the same fare. One person can subsist on fatty, sugary, snacks with no ill effects, while another may eat carefully and still be at risk for such diet-related problems as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In addition to the factors known to affect these syndromes – genetics, diet and physical activity – recent research has added another: the microbiota that reside in the gut of each and every one of us. Studies in various labs around the world suggest that the relative predominance of certain bacterial species in these microbial communities – which mostly live in harmony with us and even contribute to our health – may have a profound effect on our tendency to gain weight.
How, exactly, does our personal mix of gut bacteria contribute to our body’s response to food? Does it affect, for example, sugar levels in the blood – particularly the elevated levels that lead to metabolic syndrome and diabetes? On the other hand, can changes in our diet affect the composition of the microbiota? And can understanding our own, personal nutrition profile ultimately help us to make healthier eating choices?
To find out, Prof. Eran Segal of the Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, and Molecular Cell Biology Departments, and Dr. Eran Elinav of the Immunology Department have embarked on a unique experiment. Together with Prof. Zamir Halperin, Head of Gastroenterology at Sourasky Medical Center, Tel Aviv; Dr. David Israeli of Kfar Shaul Hospital; and members of the Nancy and Stephen Grand Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine on the Weizmann campus, they have called for volunteers to participate in a first-of-its-kind personalized nutrition project.
After attending a lecture in which the experiment and procedure are explained, the volunteers are fitted with small patches containing glucose meters that continuously monitor blood sugar levels for a week. During that week, they are asked to record what they eat; the only required foods are at breakfast, which changes over the week so as to reveal how their bodies respond to specific nutrients. Blood tests and a sample of the individual’s intestinal microbiota are also taken.
In return, participants can log on to the project website to follow their glucose levels; they have access to a comprehensive online diet planner; and at the end of the week, they receive a detailed analysis of their results, including the makeup of their gut microbiota (with an explanation) and a glucose response profile that can help them determine what foods are best for them to eat. Segal: “If successful, this study may lead to the ability to administer person-specific dietary interventions that improve people’s blood glucose response to foods and help them battle the recent surge in obesity and diabetes.”
Dr. Eran Elinav’s research is supported by the Abisch Frenkel Foundation for the Promotion of Life Sciences; the Gurwin Family Fund for Scientific Research; the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust; Yael and Rami Ungar, Israel; the Crown Endowment Fund for Immunological Research; the estate of Jack Gitlitz; the estate of Lydia Hershkovich; John and Vera Schwartz; and the European Research Council.
Prof. Eran Segal’s research is supported by the Kahn Family Research Center for Systems Biology of the Human Cell; the Carolito Stiftung; and the European Research Council.