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Can you stomach the move? New study finds correlation between U.S. immigration and decreased gut biodiversity leading to obesity and diabetes

Watching what I ate was never a really a priority for me while living in my hometown in Budapest, Hungary. For some reason, I never struggled with worrying about gaining weight. I was active, ate quite well and my body didn’t seem to rebel against me.

I wish I could say that was the case now. That ease lasted until I moved to the U.S. nearly 10 years ago. The first few months didn’t only come with exciting adventures and memories, but at least 20 pounds extra, too.

Up until about a year ago, I couldn’t quite crack the code, why it was that every time I went back home I lost weight, but when I returned to the states, I packed it right back on. The more research I’ve read and the more I’ve learned about my body, my gut and how my metabolism worked, the clearer the answer’s become.

Gut microbiome

Many foods in the US contain additives that change the gut microbiota, the bacteria in the gut, and may cause low-grade inflammation, which if left unnoticed can become chronic and affect your overall health. Plus, according to a new research, even my gut microbiome played against me.

The study, published November 1 in the journal Cell by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Somali, Latino, and Hmong Partnership for Health and Wellness, found new evidence that the gut microbiota of immigrants rapidly Westernize after a person’s arrival in the United States.

The study looked at European-Americans and communities immigrating from Southeast Asia, and it could provide insight into some of the metabolic health issues, including obesity and diabetes, that affect U.S. immigrants.

According to its findings, if you’re born and raised in a non-Western country, your microbiome diversity is much larger than of those who are second generation immigrants. With time, this diversity decreases so much generation by generation that the native gut biodiversity of European-Americans is only fraction of those still living in Europe.

Major A-HA moment, right? That blew my mind, everything suddenly makes perfect sense.

And, if that hasn’t gotten your attention, here’s something else. “Epidemiological evidence has shown that residency in the United States increases the risk of obesity and other chronic diseases among immigrants relative to individuals of the same ethnicity that continue to reside in their country of birth, with some groups experiencing up to a 4-fold increase in obesity after 15 years,” the study states.

One of the most common discomforts I’ve encountered was bloating and that gas-y feeling. Yes, we all know it’s annoying and can be a pain in the butt when you’re around people.

And now I know what’s to blame. Researchers also found that US immigrants lose enzymes associated with plant fiber degradation. What that means is that my gut bacteria don’t produce certain enzymes anymore that could break down fiber molecules the same way they used to. Hence, causing digestive problems, such as bloating.

If you don’t pay attention to how your gut behaves, bloating will be the least of your problems as it could result in further health complications from high blood pressure and obesity to diabetes.

Food additives

Photo credit: Patrick Fore

Gut problems come hand-in-hand with inflammation, which is another underlying issue that immigrants face causing life-threatening chronic diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimers and heart disease.

Certain food ingredients—sugar, vegetable oils, preservatives—are commonly known to cause low-grade chronic inflammation, but Americans alone face a few more. There’re several food additives that are legal in the US but banned in Europe and other countries.

These artificial additives are often used to boost the flavor, color or texture and extend shelf life of whatever’s on the end of your fork. Think Fruit Loops cereal or rainbow cake.

Photo credit: Robert Anasch

A study for example found that artificial food coloring increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population.

I do wonder why Americans won’t follow the steps Europeans have made and swap artificial coloring to natural dyes? McDonald’s, M&M and Mars all got rid of those additives in Europe, but continue using them in the US. Why?

The only answer I seem to come across with is that it looks brighter and looks better. But can we just consider for a moment that a simple brighter-looking bite can cause a darker health in the future?!

Other worrisome additives are synthetic growth hormones (rBST and rBGH) that an estimated 20% of dairy cows in the U.S. are injected with to increase milk production.  Again, Europe has taken the necessary step, and the European Commission banned hormones in livestock in 1981 and continues to enforce it. It’s also banned in Canada and Japan.

Why is it a problem to us, humans? According to the Center for Food Safety, the milk of cows that are treated with rBGH has an elevated level of insulin-like growth hormone (IFG-1), which could survive digestion and make its way into the intestines and blood stream, and increase the chances of breast, prostate and colon cancers.

Here’re a few more additives you’ll be surprised to find on the labels of items in your fridge or cabinet.

Brominated vegetable oil: It’s used to keep citrus flavoring from separating out in some sodas and sports drinks like Mountain Dew.

Azodicarbonamide (ADA): It’s an agent and dough conditioner used in cereal flour and bread dough, oh and yoga mats. Yes, nearly 500 foods contain yoga mat chemical.

Olestra: This chemical allows food manufacturers to rip comfort foods from fat, cholesterol and calories and get rid of high-fat cooking oils. But there’s a catch! It decreases the body’s ability to absorb essential vitamins and causes negative gastrointestinal side effects such as diarrhea, cramps and gas. You can find olestra in certain brands of microwave popcorn, chips, french fries, crackers that are advertised as fat-free. It’s banned in Europe and Canada too.