Managing Microbes

New year, new resolutions.  If weight loss is on your list – scholars are encouraging humans to think more about the microscopic creatures living inside them.  This is particularly the case with an audiobook I have been running to for the past few days by Tim Spector, titled The Diet Myth (2015).  Published this past May, Spector’s book encourages his readers to think differently about the New Year’s diet strategies of old.  Atkins, Mediterranean, Paleo… whatever the new fad is, it may on the surface seem logical to try one or another.  But in the end it may not be good for us on an individual basis.  More specifically, these diets may not be good for our microbes.

diet myth
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The Diet Myth is a hodgepodge book filled with a mixture of personal anecdotes and scientific literature.  Bottom line: scientists time and again find inconsistent results when studying diet and nutrition.  Spector cites a myriad of studies, many showing even people with the same genetic make-up (Spector is a specialist in twin studies) do not always react to the same foods in the same ways.  One’s genetic background makes up only one component of weight loss/gain – and Spector reiterates this throughout the book.  Cultural, environmental, and psychological factors are considered by Spector tangentially, but he argues we get the most answers from our microbes with microbial-based studies.  These include the current American Gut, a continuation of the Human Microbiome Project by Jeff Leach.  Interested in what lives in you?  Leach’s project will test your gut for a fee – which is logged into a database for better understanding microbes. Even famed food author Michael Pollan has tested his microbes through this crowd-sourced study.

Photo credit:  Human Food Project, 2014.

For Spector, the answer you would get from such a test may surprise you.  According to the author – microbes can adapt, they respond to physical activity, as well as to stress.  This is what makes microbes unique to think about when considering changing a diet: they are tailored to you and your lifestyle.  I especially liked Spector’s example of “Pizza Dan,” a man residing in Maryland whose entire diet consists of cheese pizza.  Dan has diabetes he has managed since childhood, according to Spector, but otherwise, measuring his cholesterol, blood pressure, and the usual vitals linked to good health – he’s perfectly average.  Spector asks his readers: have Dan’s microbes adapted positively to this diet?  The healthy people like Dan are the ones we need to be studying, he advocates, and it seems the studies he has conducted so far show microbial diversity is the key to managing a healthy human body.

Spector didn’t start the microbe diet discussion.  Many books have been published over the past five years addressing the microbiome and the positive outcomes that could come with focusing on it for dieting.  But popular knowledge of microbes affecting health through overall diet has arguably existed in the agricultural sector long before this human-centric movement.  “Rumen bugs,” or the microbes living in ruminant animals, have been seriously considered in animal nutrition research since at least the 1970s.*  Ruminants like sheep and cattle are known to have special stomachs – and this has been fairly common knowledge for centuries.  It continues to be understood that ruminants have a delayed process of digestion in comparison to other stomachs because nutrients are extracted through fermentation.  This fermentation process can be tricky for farmers, as it can be easily altered through what the animals eat.

There are interesting debates about feeding and diagnosing ailments in cattle based on fermentation in the mid-19th century.  One lovely debate between veterinarians can be found in The Farmer’s Magazine of London from 1840.  The writer, named R. Read from Devon, writes that the former periodical (November 1840) was incorrect in describing “hoose” vs. “hoove” (I’m not entirely sure if he refers to a spelling error or an error in diagnosis).  According to this writer, “hoose” is a cough in young calves caused by lungworm, while hoove is an ailment of a cow’s stomach after having eaten, “young vetches, or after grass or clover, or lucerne while wet with dew.”  This diet causes excess gasses that can be trapped in the rumen causing serious internal damage.  The writer offers two suggestions to farmers when encountering severe hoove – to puncture the stomach with a knife and insert a “flexible tube”, or to feed the cow egg-sized pellets of lard, flour and salt.   Though microbes are not considered explicitly in such discussions, the process of fermentation and its variability through diet is addressed at length – particularly in this antacid-like procedure which is considered by this writer as “of real value” when the more invasive procedure cannot be performed.

Today, animal nutritionists are encouraging farmers to think about the microbes in the rumen in more creative ways.  During my ethnographic work with nutritionists and Amish farmers, the experts would encourage relationships with “happy bugs,” which could be facilitated through specific feeding regiments.  According to these experts, “waking bugs up” in the morning with dry hay and “keeping bugs active and happy” with fresh silage in front of the animal to consume throughout the day makes for more efficient milk production.  We are beginning to hear such language incorporated into conversations about our own stomachs – which probiotics in yogurt advertised as making “happy tummies.”  Anthropologist Heather Paxson (2008) has even documented “happy bug” language being used by raw milk advocates in describing their own stomachs.  Spector does not describe making microbes happy for healthier results in his book, but anthropomorphizing these invisible creatures arguably creates better emotive connections and commitments for non-scientists and non-experts.

Photo credit: The Bullvine, 2014.

Diverse bugs.  Active bugs.  Happy bugs.  Microbes, though rarely seen with the naked eye, are making their way into human health conversations.  Conversations about the relationships between microbial behavior and nutrition have been explicit for much longer in cows and sheep – but that doesn’t mean microbes have had a voice in these matters until the last few years.  Microbes are taking center stage: and their health and their happiness are being considered intrinsically linked to our health and happiness.  Eating for them (or feeding for them in the farmer’s case) shifts our perspective about nutrition – perhaps for the better.



M, Durand, and Komisarczuk S. “Influence of Major Minerals on Rumen Microbiota.” The Journal of Nutrition 118, no. 2 (February 1988): 249–60.

Paxson, Heather. “POST-PASTEURIAN CULTURES: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1 (February 1, 2008): 15–47. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1360.2008.00002.x.

Spector, Tim. The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat. Orion, 2015.

The Farmer’s Magazine. Rogerson and Tuxford, 1840.


*This is considering a few articles published in the 1988 Journal of Nutrition which was a symposium on rumen productivity.  The studies cited by these articles were completed in the 1970s. See Durand and Komisarczuk 1988.

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