Nitrogen key for gut health: Study

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Findings from this study could offer a mechanism that explains how a high protein intake affects metabolic health.This diet strategy has been embraced by weightlifters and people following a healthier lifestyle. ©iStock/Lecic
Findings from this study could offer a mechanism that explains how a high protein intake affects metabolic health.This diet strategy has been embraced by weightlifters and people following a healthier lifestyle. ©iStock/Lecic

Related tags Gut bacteria Nutrition

Populations of beneficial microbes, metabolic health and even healthy ageing of the host are dependent on the gut microbes’ access to nitrogen, a study has discovered.

Nutrient requirements for gut bacteria are mainly carbon and nitrogen, which they get from the food that the host consumes.

The findings revealed microbe species numbers were not only dependent on the host's protein and carbohydrate intake but the macronutrient amounts in the diet.

“Carbohydrates contain no nitrogen but protein does,” ​explained lead author, associate professor Andrew Holmes, from the Charles Perkins Centre and School of Life and Environmental Sciences. “The bacterial community response to the host animal’s diet is strongly affected by a diet’s protein-carbohydrate ratio."

The findings further identity how diet impacts the microbiota and paves the way in creating more accurate diet models in the future.

For example it could offer a mechanism for the impact of high protein intake on metabolic health that has become a popular diet strategy among weightlifters and people following a healthier lifestyle.  

Study details

Across the diet treatments, energy intake as protein ranged from 5% to 60%, carbohydrate from 20% to 75%, and fat from 20% to 75%.©iStock

Here, University of Sydney researchers examined results taken from 858 mice fed certain foods chosen from a variety of 25 diets.

These diets comprised of ten different macronutrient amounts comprising protein (casein and methionine), carbohydrate (wheat starch, dextrinised corn starch, and sucrose) and fat (soya bean oil). Other ingredients include cellulose, a mineral mix and a vitamin mix.

The new model identified high-carbohydrate diets as most likely to promote positive interactions in the microbiome. However, such advantages were relative on the host’s protein intake.

“Until now it has been very difficult to establish clear causality between various types of diet and their effect on the host's microbiome,”​ said professor Holmes.

“This is because there are many complex factors at play, including food composition, eating pattern and genetic background."

"The fact that this same pattern was seen across almost all groups of gut bacteria indicates that the makeup of the microbial ecosystem is fundamentally shaped by a need to access nitrogen in the intestinal environment."

Model for prebiotic use?

Previous research​ has identified a number of patterns as to how diet impacts the microbiome, yet a workable model that explains microbial response to a diet make up remains elusive.

The researchers said that the proposed mechanism could well have uses in predicting outcomes in other caloric restricted or high-fibre diets as well as diets that are supplemented with prebiotics.

"The same diet won't work in the same way in each person,"​ added co-author professor Stephen Simpson, academic director of the Charles Perkins Centre.

“The challenges for diet interventions now are to relate the microbiome impact more directly to health outcomes and to begin to explore the interactive contributions of different carbohydrate, protein, or fat profiles with intake patterns.”

Source: Cell Metabolism

Published online ahead of print,

“Diet-Microbiome Interactions in Health Are Controlled by Intestinal Nitrogen Source Constraints.”

Authors: Stephen Simpson et al.

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1 comment

What is the impact on humans?

Posted by George Henderson,

As far as I know, a negative impact of a high protein diet has never been shown in humans, and experiments have tended to show the opposite.
Humans, like the other large brained species, dolphins, seem to be well adapted to the higher protein diets we consumed as we evolved as species.
Using a mouse model has obvious limitations, and it is unfortunate that these authors once again fail to discuss the limitations of both a mouse model (the C57BL/6 mouse has specific unique metabolic defects and is not even a wild-type mouse representative of its species) and computer simulations.

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