“Let Food Be Thy Medicine” and Microbial Nourishment

‘Let food be thy medicine’ has been to Hippocrates.

A recent study (RY Chen et al. NEJM 2021; 384: 1517-1528. Full text A Microbiota-Directed Food Intervention for Undernourished Children) shows that foods that benefit the microbiome can help reverse malnutrition.

Background: “Children with these levels of malnutrition have defects in the development of their gut microbiota, which leaves them with microbial communities that appear to be younger than those of their healthy counterparts”

Methods: After completing studies in mice and piglets, the authors developed several microbiota-directed complementary food (MDCF) prototypes. They compared three of these formulations with an existing ready-to-use supplementary food (RUSF) in a 1-month-long, randomized, controlled trial involving children between the ages of 12 months and 18 months with moderate acute malnutrition who were living in an urban slum known as Mirpur, located in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A total of 118 children (59 in each study group) completed the intervention.

Key findings:

  • The rates of change in the weight-for-length and weight-for-age z scores are consistent with a benefit of MDCF-2 on growth over the course of the study, including the 1-month follow-up.
  • Receipt of MDCF-2 was linked to the magnitude of change in levels of 70 plasma proteins and of 21 associated bacterial taxa that were positively correlated with the weight-for-length z score (P<0.001 for comparisons of both protein and bacterial taxa). These proteins included mediators of bone growth and neurodevelopment.
  • The mean weekly change in the weight-for-length z score was 0.021 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.014 to 0.029) in the MDCF-2 group and 0.010 (95% CI, 0.003 to 0.017) in the RUSF group, for a between-group difference of 0.011 (95% CI, 0.001 to 0.021).
  • The mean weekly change in the weight-for-age z score was 0.017 (95% CI, 0.012 to 0.022) in the MDCF-2 group and 0.010 (95% CI, 0.004 to 0.015) in the RUSF group, for a between-group difference of 0.008 (95% CI, 0.001 to 0.015).

My take: This study supports the notion that alterations in the microbiome need to be restored for healthy growth and development. Further studies are needed regarding the durability of the improvements induced by the MDCF and long-term outcomes.

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