Dietary Microbiome Repair Could Help Solve Global Childhood Malnutrition

Almost half of all global deaths among children under the age of 5 is due to malnutrition.  Among those children who experience malnutrition and do survive, health experts advise they will continue to suffer long-term consequences like stunted growth and neurodevelopment delay. 

Currently, the standards for addressing the known nutrition gap focus on providing the recommended amount of calories and nutrients by adding nutrition bars and energy supplements.  But getting these specific supplies to those who are most in need of them is not easy.  For one, these therapeutic foods can be pricey; and those foods that might make it into the hands of those who need it can be quite different in texture, form, and taste than what people might be used to, culturally.  

That said, the quest to find better options for these children has been a rocky one but researchers believe that key might lie within the microbiome.  A new study published this week describes how a diet that promotes certain microbial species in the gut seems to help malnourished in Bangladesh more than the standard therapy.

Lead author Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD explains, “We found that children who are malnourished have incompletely formed gut microbial communities compared with their healthy counterparts.”

To understand this mechanism, researchers first analyzed fecal samples from the microbiome of healthy children. These samples were collected once a month over the first few years of life and analyzed for their microbial makeup.  

These samples were then compared against the microbiomes of those malnourished children.  Scientists then used machine learning algorithms to identify a small group of organisms that were present in the healthy microbiome that was missing or altered in the malnourished microbiome. 

Thus, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor explains, “Therefore, we set about to design therapeutic foods to repair this immaturity and to determine whether such repair would restore healthy growth.”

Dr. Gordon attests that science remain uncertain as to which foods are best to administer in that particular period of complementary feeding. This is that time period when children are making the transition from exclusive milk feedings to solid foods.  After much research, the study team found that a combination of chickpeas, banana, soy flour, peanuts, and a few other common foods could promote the growth of healthy gut microbes.  Perhaps more importantly, it only takes about a month for a child with a deficient gut microbiome to recover.

The study has been published in the journal Science.