Probiotics, Weight Loss and Digestive Health
Probiotics can be loosely defined as, "Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host." Essentially it's good bacteria inserted into food.
The belief is that modern factory processing kills all the beneficial bacteria, so companies need to inject it back into food. It was primarily done with yogurt and dietary supplements, but the market has exploded in recent years and now you can find probiotics in pizza, cereals, muffins and even chocolate.
The theory behind how probiotics work is simple. Good bacteria crowd out the bad. Over time that has evolved and scientists now believe probiotics can do many things, including reducing harmful inflammation, providing relief from diarrhea and controlling allergies.
There are two big problems. As of December 2012, only preliminary evidence exists for the health claims that many companies are making. That doesn't mean they don't work, just that very few of the claims are backed up by effective products and valid research.
The second problem is that like any supplement, probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They're a food supplement, so consumers must rely solely on the integrity of the manufacturers. Where science is unsure, marketing takes over and companies make claims that range from simple exaggerations to outright lies.
Many articles on probiotics are written as testimonials. "Here's what probiotics have done for me, therefore they should do exactly the same for you." Unfortunately every body is different, so what works for one may be deadly for another. What we need are clear, clinical trials that test specific probiotics on controlled groups of people to determine proper dosages and effects. Until that happens, here are a few things to be wary of.
Lie #1 - Probiotics help with weight loss. Supposedly probiotics alter the way we digest calories, including how rapidly digestion works. By speeding up the process you can burn excess fat off. Unfortunately any beneficial effect you get from a serving of probiotic laced food can be eliminated with an extra bite of anything that has calories. A single serving of traditional sugar filled yogurt contains more calories than any probiotic has ever been shown to eliminate.
Lie #2 - Probiotics help boost your immunity. In very small studies, probiotics have been shown to increase T-cells, part of the bodies defense system against viruses. But there are no studies that show that boost can do things like fight off the flu or protect you from other pathogens. If you want immunity, get a flu shot.
Lie #3 - Probiotics can help protect against cancer. The anti-cancer claims are often followed by referencing a large-scale study that looked at dietary and cancer data from more than 82,000 Swedish men and women over nine years. Yogurt eaters had a lower percentage risk of developing bladder cancer. However, data from Asian studies found that men who ate more fermented (and probiotic rich) foods daily had higher risks of prostate and stomach cancer. Neither study strictly compared similar groups of people where one group was given a probiotic food while the control was given the same food without probiotics.
Researchers thought multivitamins were beneficial for decades, until large-scale studies proved them wrong. In fact several vitamins turned out to be dangerous when taken in pill form. We urge caution with probiotics as well.
There are some things probiotics can do. The bacteria does help people with lactose intolerance eat things like yogurt of kefir without as many digestion problems. Probiotics can help restore populations of healthy bacteria in people who've had them knocked out by antibiotic treatments.
To make sure you're getting what's appropriate, ask your doctor for specific species and strains of probiotics that are proven to help with the condition you have. Only buy products with the strain your doctor recommends.
Finally, check the package expiration date. Probiotics are living organisms and if you don't use them in time, their effectiveness may be diminished or rendered worthless.
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