The prebiotic shake: A special interview with Dr. Christopher Damman

Fermented foods have been an integral component of human diets since ancient times. These foods contained live microorganisms, some of which were developed as probiotics to confer human health benefits when ingested in sufficient quantities. However, probiotics aren’t the only way to promote human health. As I discussed in my previous blog post, prebiotics are molecules that gut bacteria metabolize to promote human health. These can include fibers such as resistant starch, yogurt, and whole grains. They can be provided as supplements or be integrated into your diet. But either way, they play key roles in keeping your gut microbiota alive and your body healthy.

In the second post of my series on the microbiome and probiotics conference, I had the honour of speaking with Dr. Christopher Damman, Associate Professor at the University of Washington (UW) and a board-certified gastroenterologist. The extensive experience he gained as the former Microbiome & Gut Health Initiative Lead at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and as Chief Medical & Science Officer at Supergut also affords him with unprecedented expertise with the GI tract and prebiotics. Here, I put his knowledge in the spotlight as I ask him about his work on a new prebiotic shake for overweight adults with type 2 diabetes (T2D). The research project provides substantial promise for using prebiotics to improve clinical outcomes for T2D and other metabolic diseases.

Q: When comparing prebiotics and probiotics, which do you think will have a more substantial effect on the gut microbiota and health, and why?

A: The literature suggests that both are impactful, playing different roles for specific conditions in different individuals. On a public health/population level though, I would emphasize the importance of prebiotics, functional foods, and whole foods as having a disproportionate impact because they have the potential to recruit and shape a healthy resident gut microbial army vs. provide a handful of transient species. I put stock in the if-you-feed-them-they-will-come-concept.

That said, probiotics/postbiotics play an important role in fermented foods evolutionarily and are a great complement to prebiotics for shaping a healthy microbiome. Also, in disease states, many microbiomes are so depleted that repopulating them will be necessary before prebiotic approaches will work. These specific conditions will require live bacteria product approaches (LBPs, involving gut-derived commensals) combined with prebiotics, functional foods, and whole foods to be most effective. The short answer is that both prebiotics and probiotics will be important for impacting the gut microbiome.

Q: Why is fiber so difficult to obtain in our diets? What is the most efficient way to add more fiber in our diets?

A: The accessibility, flavor profile, and cost of high-fiber whole foods is a big contributor here. These impact people’s food preferences which can sometimes steer them away from fiber-rich foods. To add more fiber into diets, we should continue to stress the importance of whole foods in more creative ways. To that end, I provide some useful tips on this front through my Gut Bites blog post that will help anyone eager to add more fiber into their diets here. Additionally, any gaps in fiber intake could potentially be filled with convenient, cost-effective, and modern palate-pleasing functional foods and supplements.

Q: What is the most important takeaway point you want your audience to have when they listen to your talk?

A: I want the audience to understand that healthy, convenient, and flavorful functional foods can be developed and validated through rigorous evidence-based research. Having such studies will be important for developing next-generation approaches to foods that at scale can truly mitigate the increasing burden of metabolic disease.

Q: What are you looking forward to the most in your attendance at this year’s conference?

A: The conference is a great meeting place for industry and academic specialists who study the human microbiome. I’m looking forward to having great conversations that lead to possible collaborations and synergies.  Ultimately, I hope these conversations lead to next-generation foods and products that positively impact public health.

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