Over the last 30 years, American society has fought a losing battle against the bulge. The consequences of our surrender can be seen in the growing segment of the population that suffers from obesity and the rising number of heart disease cases, which ranks as the leading cause of death in the U.S.
Currently, 75 percent of the adult population in the U.S. qualifies as either overweight or obese. Making these current numbers even more disconcerting is the growing prevalence of obesity among children. Over the last 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in young children and tripled in adolescents. The number of children between the ages of 6 to 11 with obesity increased from seven percent in 1980 to almost 18 percent in 2010. During this same period, the number of obese adolescents between the ages of 12 to 19 increased from five percent to 18 percent.
Studies have shown that children who struggle with their weight at a young age continue to struggle with managing their weight well into adulthood. Helping children control their weight at a young age would go a long way towards helping to reduce the adult population that struggles with obesity. Of course, trying to predict weight gain in children and adults has proved problematic for health professionals.
Now a new study suggests that forecasting a person’s risk of becoming overweight may be as simple as a breath test. According to researchers, the results from a standard breath test used to determine bacterial growth in the gut may also tell doctors whether a person has a high percentage of body fat and whether they are either overweight now or will become so in the future.
A Gut Feeling
The human stomach contains trillions of bacteria, both good and bad in nature. While this “microbiome” usually exists in a state of equilibrium, with an equal number of good and bad bacteria, your stomach can fall out of balance when the number of bad bacteria begins to significantly outnumber the good. When this occurs, symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, and bloating may occur. This latest study suggests that when this type imbalance occurs, it may signal the potential for obesity.
As part of the study, researchers from Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center asked participants to drink a sugary lactulose syrup. Researchers then collected breath samples from participants every 15 minutes for the next two hours. Those involved in the study also had their body fat measured using the BMI (body mass index), which takes into account a person’s weight and height, and using low-wattage electrical conductivity, a method used to differentiate fatty tissue from lean tissue.
Those individuals whose breath sample indicated a higher percentage of methane and hydrogen in the stomach scored higher on the BMI and had greater amount of body fat when compared to study participants who had normal breath or showed a higher concentration of only one of the two gases. This trend indicates to researchers that the gut contains an abundance of the bacteria Methanobrevibacter smithii.
Researchers speculate that when this type of bacteria begins to dominate the stomach, people have a higher risk of accumulating fat and gaining weight.
A New Weight Loss Tool?
If researchers have their data confirmed, they believe that individuals whose breath shows high levels of hydrogen and methane may have a greater likelihood of responding positively to certain weight loss methods in the future. This could allow doctors to match specific weight loss treatment programs to individuals based on their breath pattern. One example of how this technique could be beneficial is by using probiotics, a type of bacteria used to restore the balance of good and bad bacteria in the stomach, as a way treat and possibly prevent obesity.
Matching weight loss strategies to dieters based on what has the greatest chance of success could also help people lose weight more easily, which in turn would reduce the frustration many dieters feel when able to achieve their weight loss goals. While more research is needed before this technique becomes common practice, this could mark a significant victory in trying to lower the collective weight of the U.S. population.