In a discussion with chef Thomas Rode at this year’s Heartland Festival, metabolism researcher Oluf Borbye Pedersen explained that humans are 90% bacteria. These bacteria break down food into energy in the gut, strengthen the immune system and probably alter our mood and memory. In the future, not only will our medicine be personalized to fit our DNA; this will also apply to our food, so our gut bacteria can get the nutrients that can keep their host effervescent and healthy.
It was the crack of dawn on 11 May 2017. A taxi picked up Oluf Borbye Pedersen from his home. The taxi was gleaming, and when Oluf opened the door to the back seat, he met the pleasant scent of cleaning fluids. A bottle of hand sanitizer occupied the holder next to the driver’s seat normally designated for a coffee cup. Oluf complimented the driver but still had to say: “I guess you do not like bacteria.”
Everything went quiet. The taxi driver turned off the car radio, turned towards Oluf and stared silently, finally saying: “Are you off your rocker? And no, I hate bacteria.”
It turned out that the taxi driver had had two Salmonella infections and had just recovered from pneumonia, so he had a plausible reason to hate bacteria.
Oluf nevertheless gave him with a long professorial lecture about how humans have 10 times as many bacteria in our bodies as actual human cells, that we have 40 times as much bacterial DNA as our own DNA and that bacteria and their DNA broadly control our immune response.
“I explained to this worthy taxi driver that bacteria break down much of our food, converting it into energy for us. Research has shown that simply changing the composition of gut bacteria in a mouse can alter the mouse’s mood, curiosity and memory – just changing the gut bacteria in different ways. And when researchers give old fish the gut bacteria of young fish, the old fish begin to behave like teenage fish and live 30–40% longer than normal,” explains Oluf Borbye Pedersen, Professor and Group Leader, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen.
Towards personalized food
Like the taxi driver, most people still view bacteria as causing illness. However, this viewpoint will change, Oluf Borbye Pedersen explained in a discussion with chef Thomas Rode at this year’s Heartland Festival.
“Within medicine, we are moving towards personalized medicine, in which doctors prescribe medicine based on a person’s DNA and the composition of their gut bacteria to optimize the effect of the medicine and minimize the side-effects. The same applies to food. We are moving towards personalized food.”
According to Oluf Borbye Pedersen, many people have chronic inflammation, but if we eat plenty of vegetables and nuts – such as avocados, broccoli, spinach and walnuts – we can avoid this inflammation and thereby reduce the risk of numerous disorders and diseases.
“Our bodies may develop these inflammatory disorders because humans are the only species on Earth that almost exclusively eat based on preference, and this is a huge problem,” explains Thomas Rode, former head chef at Kong Hans Kælder restaurant in Copenhagen.
Indifferent about our own engine
According to Thomas Rode, processed food is a massive problem. Since he stepped down as head chef at Kong Hans Kælder restaurant in Copenhagen, he has been trying to get “real” food back on Danish dining tables. Doing this requires looking back in time, says Thomas Rode.
“In the past, there was no processed food in brilliantly coloured packaging. There were no mountains of pasta that easily enabled people to make dinner for eight in 4 minutes. We have always thought about searching for traditional things to eat and then use the knowledge we have now to make them attractive and tasty,” explains Thomas Rode.
According to Oluf Borbye Pedersen, science definitely supports some of this approach and strategy for making good and healthy food.
“Vegetables are the favourite dish of healthy gut bacteria, and berries are known as one way of repairing damage to our DNA so we do not develop cancer and other tumours. However, we know today that if people eat a lot of red meat from four-legged animals, they will essentially promote the gut bacteria that produce substances that enter the bloodstream and cause arteriosclerosis.”
According to Thomas Rode, 65 per cent of what we eat is based on grain, corn, rice and potatoes plus the daily dose of refined sugar and many additives. This does not leave much room for what provides satiety, health, nourishment for gut bacteria and the energy we need to live a better and longer life.
“If I buy a new car, I do exactly what the owner’s manual tells me. If it says to use 98 octane lead-free petrol, then that is what I use. Why then are we completely indifferent about what we put into our own engine? All that matters is that it is palatable, cheap and quick. Just like a car, each of us individually has an appropriate formula for the fuel that we need.”
Healthy common sense
The question is how people can find their own formula for fuel that can ensure that their cells and especially the bacteria inside them get the right fuel. Oluf Borbye Pedersen believes that the reason why the media and magazines bombard us daily with diets is because nutrition science is definitely one of the youngest sciences around.
“Many people think that science and reality are the same, but they differ greatly. We only know small fragments of the absolute truth about health-promoting food. In our real lives with food, we should probably do precisely what we do with our personal finances. When you invest, you try to spread the investment. The same also applies to food. Try to invest broadly in your health. Try to follow nutritional science and put into practice the best available evidence to achieve good health and a long and effervescent life.”
According to Oluf Borbye Pedersen, however, people still need to integrate scientific knowledge with their own experience to become the best version of themselves.
“Use your own personal experience and listen to your personal biology, because your DNA and gut bacteria differ from those of other people. Draw on your own experience, but align this with the best available knowledge on a healthy diet to synthesize the current fragmented science and your experience. I call that healthy common sense.”
Oluf Borbye Pedersen’s taxi driver, who had endured a long lecture on the bacteria he did not like, may or may not have displayed healthy common sense when he arrived at the destination and said:
“Yes, my gut feeling is right. You are definitely off your rocker. You are infected with 50 trillion bacteria. But I will promise you one thing: when I get you out of my car, I will disinfect it extra thoroughly.”
The Novo Nordisk Foundation supported the Talks Programme at Heartland Festival 2017, at which Thomas Rode and Oluf Borbye Pedersen discussed Personal Optimization and Food. Thomas Rode was the head chef at Kong Hans Kælder restaurant in Copenhagen from 1996 to 2014. Since then he has been working as Functional Lifestyle Mentor at Kurhotel Skodsborg. Oluf Borbye Pedersen is a Professor and Group Leader, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen. He co-authored the book Tarme i Topform [Getting your Gut in Shape] published by Politikens Forlag.