How To Stay Young (And Skinny?) With Inulin
Posted on July 19, 2016
How To Stay Young (And Skinny?) With Inulin
Recently on the ABC there was a TV program called “How To Stay Young”. The program is still available on ABC Iview and you can watch it here:
The TV program explored some of the science behind how we can slow down the ageing process and prevent many of the diseases associated with ageing such as diabetes and heart disease.
It was an interesting program which indeed covered some important points such as eating high fibre food sources, staying fit and active and dealing with excess stress, which are all well known lifestyle factors that may slow down the ageing process and prevent many chronic diseases.
One of the presenters of the show, a very fit lady in her seventies, had a body scan done that showed despite her active lifestyle and healthy diet, that she had a sizable amount of fat around her heart and organs. This type of fat, known as visceral fat, is the sort of fat most strongly associated with risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The program mentioned that one way we can reduce this visceral fat is by increasing our consumption of particular fibres from food known as resistant starches and oligosaccharides. The host suggested however, that in order for her to consume a large enough dosage of these fibres she would have to eat massive amounts of lentils and beans daily.
As this was too difficult to consume, she began sprinkling a particular fibre on her food called Inulin, which is a supplement that is far more concentrated in these beneficial effects than consuming lentils and beans.
This Inulin supplement was suggested by the program to reduce body fat and slow down the ageing process. Naturally our store was inundated with calls the day after the program aired, as to whether we stocked this product.
I was very curious myself and after watching the program I thought it would be worthwhile doing some research to see how true these claims were.
WHAT IS INULIN?
Some carbohydrates in food are not able to be broken down by the human body. These carbohydrates take the form of things such as dietary fibre, oligosaccharides and resistant starches. Some of these carbohydrates actually provide a food source for the beneficial microbes that reside in our gut – our probiotic bacteria. Food for these bacteria are sometimes called pre-biotics. Prebiotics are a collection of different carbohydrates that selectively feed the beneficial probiotics in the gut and increase their number. One of the best prebiotics for gut bacteria is the carbohydrate known as inulin. Inulin is known as a fructo-oligo-saccharide (or FOS for short). Studies have found that increasing inulin in the diet can drastically increase the number of beneficial bacteria found in the gut, to a much greater extent than would supplementing with even the most powerful probiotic.
Inulin is found in a variety of foods, but is particularly high in garlic, onions, asparagus, wholegrain wheat, chicory root and leaves, bananas, dandelion root and leaves, yacon syrup, asparagus, artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes. It can also be isolated as a supplement and is often used in food to impart a sweet taste with little to no calories (Including in the Pumpy Jackson chocolate we sell at Prahran Health Foods).
HOW DOES INULIN HELP OUR BODIES?
When our beneficial bacteria gobble up inulin they produce a substance known as butyric acid. This substance is known to provide a fuel source to the cells that line the large intestine. This helps the cells to stay healthy and in some studies higher levels of butyric acid is associated with reduced risk of bowel cancer. This is part of the reason why a diet high in fruits and vegetables is advised for cancer prevention – by eating a lot of inulin rich fruits and veggies, we increase the amount of butyric acid being produced by the good gut bacteria, which keeps our bowel cells healthy.
Butyric acid also lowers the pH of the gut, making it more acidic. This helps to keep the ‘bad’ bacteria in check. Eating lots of inulin rich foods, or supplementing with inulin powder therefore helps keep pathogenic, or bad bacteria, from proliferating in the bowel.
As inulin consumption increases, so does the level of good bacteria in the gut especially species such as bifidobacteria. These bacteria perform a number of vital functions such as regulating an over active immune response, reducing inflammation, and producing various beneficial vitamins and other compounds.
Consumption of inulin rich foods has been found in some studies to reduce severity of diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, in part by the inflammation regulating effects of the bacteria it feeds in the bowel.
INULIN MAY KEEP BACTERIAL WASTE IN THE BOWEL, AND OUT OF OUR BLOOD STREAM
Bacteria in the gut produce a waste product called Lipopolysaccharide (or LPS for short). Think of this LPS as bacterial poop! This substance should not get into the bloody stream at all when our bowel wall is healthy, however, sometimes it does cross into the blood stream, and our immune system gets very annoyed at this. The immune system senses the LPS and recognizes that if there is bacterial poop around, then there must be bacteria around too. So it ramps up its defense system in the form of low grade inflammation in the body.
The liver also has a hard time dealing with this bacterial poop and it also can become a bit angry and inflamed. The presence of low grade inflammation in the liver and the rest of the body, plus the presence of LPS in the blood stream has been implicated in a variety of diseases including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even depression!
In short, you don’t want bacterial poop in your bloodstream if you want to help avoid some of these conditions!
WHATS THIS GOT TO DO WITH BODY FAT AND AGEING?
Low grade inflammation in the body has been found to interfere with a variety of the bodies processes. In particular inflammation seems to affect how well we handle our blood sugar and how we store excess energy as body fat. Low level inflammation has been found to be associated with obesity, and especially with fat around the organs, the dangerous body fat known as visceral body fat. This is a bit of a ‘chicken and an egg’ scenario, as we do not know whether obesity causes inflammation, or whether inflammation contributes towards the obesity. It could also be both of course, and research is still being completed in this area.
What we do know though is that fat around the organs is potentially a strong indicator of risk of serious diseases associated with ageing such as heart disease and diabetes.
HOW DOES INULIN HELP?
Studies have found that diets high in inulin, or inulin supplementation, seems to reduce the level of LPS (bacterial poop) from reaching our blood stream, and reducing this low grade inflammation in the body. It may do this by helping the gut cells to stay tightly together (reducing the phenomena known as leaky gut) thereby preventing LPS from getting access to the blood stream.
Or it may do this by increasing the production of butyric acid in the gut by beneficial bacteria that when absorbed by the body has an anti-inflammatory effect.
At this point science is still trying to figure out how this all works. We do know that supplementing with large amounts of inulin, or eating large volumes of inulin rich foods, does seem to reduce the condition known as non alcoholic fatty liver and improve our blood sugar regulation. Both of these factors may then help reduce visceral body fat, but only when combined with a healthy diet and exercise program.
WILL INULIN HELP ME TO SHED KILOS?
The short answer is not really! The amount of weight loss by participants in trials using large amounts of inulin was quite small, and this tended to occur more in people who were quite overweight or who had type 2 diabetes.
Basically inulin is not the miracle fibre that is going to give you a bikini body or 6 pack in weeks.
It does however show a lot of promise in reducing the dangerous visceral fat associated with diabetes and heart disease.
A high intake of inulin may also help with colon cancer prevention and blood sugar regulation. The amounts needed to reduce colon cancer risk can easily be achieved by eating a high fibre diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
The amounts needed to have an impact on visceral fat and blood sugar regulation are indeed a lot higher, and may be difficult to achieve through diet with studies using doses from 5-15 grams a day. The table below gives you an idea of how many vegetables you would need to eat daily to achieve this dose:
|Whole Real Food||
100g = ~ ½ cup
|Onion (raw or cooked)||100g||4g|
|Garlic (raw or cooked)||25g||3g|
|Lentils, Chickpeas, Hummus||100g||4g|
|Pinto Beans (cooked/cooled)||100g||3g|
INULIN AND APPETITE
Some studies on mice and humans have found that supplementing with inulin can have a small impact on appetite. As inulin passes along the digestive tract it slowly gets broken down by probiotic bacteria. These bacteria produce butyric acid that helps feed our intestinal cells. This seems to cause a release of a higher amount of hormones that help keep us satiated – or fuller – for longer.
Again the effect of this is small, and does not seem to happen with everyone, as appetite is affected by a huge variety of factors. It is highly unlikely that this will control your appetite to any massive degree, but it is something to consider if you are finding food is not satisfying you as much as it should to make sure you are eating plenty of inulin, and other fibre rich foods.
ARE THERE ANY SIDE EFFECTS?
Small amount of inulin are naturally found in the diet and for most people this is quite healthy. Cultures that consume large amounts of inulin (such as many hunter gatherer groups) also seem to show no ill effects from their inulin consumption, and even have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Supplementing with inulin can cause a few issues. Gut bacteria break down inulin into butyric acid and into gases. These gases give rise to flatulence and bloating. Studies have found that if you gradually increase the amount of inulin your digestion seems to adapt and too much gas should not be a problem. Start with a quarter, to half a teaspoon daily and increase the dose slowly over a few weeks.
Inulin may also attract some extra water into the bowel. This is generally beneficial as it softens the stool and makes it easier to pass, but in some people this can trigger diarrhea.
Inulin also increases stool volume, due to it boosting bacterial number in the stool. This has been found to reduce constipation but in some people again this may cause diarrhea. Start with a small dose and gradually increase.
WHO SHOULD NOT USE INULIN?
Individuals with IBS: often suffer from bloating, stool urgency and changes in bowel habits. This can be worsened by inulin in some people, so approach with caution, especially if you are sensitive to inulin rich foods such as onion, garlic and asparagus.
Individuals with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): may benefit from inulin in the diet, however during an active flare up of their disease the increase in gas contents in the bowel when supplementing with inulin can cause a worsening of symptoms. Therefore if you have IBD it is best not to supplement with inulin when you are having symptoms and it is best saved for periods of remission.
FODMAP/Fructose Malabsorption Diets: Because inulin is a fructo-oligo-saccharide, individuals with fructose malabsorption or those following a low FODMAP diet for IBS control will need to avoid inulin and inulin rich foods. *As an anecdote, I was able to increase my tolerance for FODMAP rich foods by slowly increasing my intake of supplemental inulin. This affect has not been studied so if you are interested in exploring this approach please see a health practitioner trained in the FODMAP diet.
Individuals with serious bowel disease: Anyone experiencing a serious bowel disorder should speak to their health practitioner before supplementing with inulin or drastically increasing their intake of inulin rich foods.
HOW DO I INCREASE MY INULIN INTAKE?
Food sources are always the healthiest way to increase the intake of any nutrient in our diets. Rich sources of inulin include garlic, onions, bananas, chicory roots and leaves, dandelion roots and leaves, witlof, asparagus, persimmons, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and regular artichokes.
We also sell a variety of supplements with inulin added. Either in purified form, or mixed with other fibres. Speak to one of our qualified staff for further information.
HOW TO TAKE AN INULIN SUPPLEMENT
Pure inulin comes in the form of a white, sweet tasting powder. Inulin can be sprinkled on food, or added to smoothies and drinks. Start with a quarter of a teaspoon a day (around 1000mg of inulin) for a few days to observe any discomforting digestive effects. If you feel fine you can increase your intake by a quarter of a teaspoon per day until you reach a maximum dose of 3 teaspoons per day. DO NOT START WITH 3 TEASPOONS PER DAY – you will regret it if your body is not use to it you will experience severe flatulence and trips to the bathroom. Start small and see how your body goes and speak to one of team about whether inulin is right for you if you have any health issues.
Interestingly many herbal remedies that were traditionally used to help with conditions such as fatty liver, diabetes and digestive problems are naturally high in inulin. It seems herbalists of old had through careful observation discovered what science is now begining to confirm, that inulin rich plants may offer many health benefits.
Examples of inulin rich herbs and their traditional medicinal use include
Dandelion Root Tea: Traditionally used for liver and gallbladder health, blood sugar health and bowel health
Chicory root tea: To stimulate digestion and liver health
Artichoke: To stimulate the gallbladder and help with cholesterol management.
Yacon Syrup: low calorie sweetener rich in inulin traditionally used for bowel health.
Inulin does indeed appear to have many health benefits backed by science including:
- boosting beneficial gut bacteria,
- helping to keep intestinal cells healthy and reducing risk of bowel cancer,
- Reducing visceral body fat (fat around the organs) and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Assisting with blood sugar regulation
- Reducing low level inflammation in the body
Many of these factors are incredibly important in preventing the diseases associated with ageing. Inulin rich foods may also have a slight effect on weight management and appetite regulation, but they are no miracle cure. Will they cause you to get that bikini body and reverse ageing? Probably not in any drastic way. That said, given the many benefits of inulin in the diet, I always encourage my patients to eat as many inulin rich foods as they can, and it may be sensible for people who are struggling with their weight or appetite regulation to include plenty of inulin rich foods as well.
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