Could Small Intestine Bacteria Fight Fat and Obesity?

There’s a lot to be said about being small and mighty. Considering all the big guns we pull out to fight weight gain and obesity—weight loss companies, scores of supplements, elaborate exercise programs, expensive food plans—it may be we need to think smaller—real small.

The authors of a recent study from the University of Chicago reported how certain bacteria that live in the small intestine can help metabolize and absorb high-fat foods. Their research could open the door to a new way to fight obesity—by inhibiting the population of specific bacteria in the small intestine that promote the absorption of fat.

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According to the study’s senior author, Eugene B. Chang, most research has not looked at the role played by the microbiome (the varied microorganisms in a given location) in the small intestine. However, since “this is where most vitamins and other micronutrients are digested and absorbed,” noted Chang, it seems a logical area to explore.

How the study worked

The investigators used several groups of mice. One group was germ-free (i.e., they had no bacteria in their intestinal tract. When these mice were given a high-fat diet, they didn’t gain weight. Rather than hold onto the fat, they eliminated it in their stool. Another group of mice were also fed a high-fat diet, but they were specially bred to have non-disease causing bacteria in their gut. These mice did gain weight, and the reason appeared to be that populations of certain strains of bacteria increased in their small intestine, apparently attracted by the high-fat foods.

More specifically, the populations of two families of bacteria (Clostridiaceae and Peptostreptococcaceae) study increased while those of two others (Bacteriodacaea and Bifidobacteriacaea) declined. According to Chang, “these microbes…allow the host to digest this high-fat diet and absorb fats.”

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So far, researchers have only observed this activity by certain bacteria in the small intestine in mouse models. However, scientists are already thinking ahead as to how these results might help them develop prebiotics, probiotics, or post-biotics to improve nutrient absorption for people with Crohn’s disease or similar malabsorption challenges, or aid in the fight against obesity. Someday soon, we may be using specific bacteria to help us drop those extra pounds.

Martinez-Guryn K et al. Small intestine microbiota regulate host digestive and absorptive adaptive responses to dietary lipids. Cell Host & Microbe 2018 Apr 11; 23(4): 458-69

By Deborah Mitchell| May 23, 2018
Categories:  Care

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at

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