To better understand the interplay between diet, gut microbiome, and human health in New Hampshire’s Hispanic/Latino adults and to provide information for effective lifestyle interventions for weight management while benefiting local food producers and nutrition assistance programs.
Gut microbiota: The complex community of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, residing in the gastrointestinal tract, playing a crucial role in digestion, metabolism, and overall health.
Metabolites: Small molecules produced as byproducts of metabolic processes within living organisms, often serving as indicators of biochemical reactions and playing various functional roles in cellular processes.
Why are gut microbiota important?
Gut microbiota play a crucial role in several aspects of human health, including digestion, nutrient absorption, immune system function and even influencing mental health. They help break down complex carbohydrates, produce certain vitamins, protect against harmful pathogens and contribute to overall well-being. Imbalances in gut microbiota have been linked to various health conditions, emphasizing their significance in maintaining a healthy body. Read some of the ways that gut microbiota affect human health.
- Digestion and Nutrient Absorption: Gut microbiota aid in the digestion of dietary fibers and complex carbohydrates that the human digestive system cannot break down on its own. They produce enzymes that break down these compounds, releasing nutrients and energy in the process.
- Immune System Support: A significant portion of the immune system resides in the gut. Gut microbiota help regulate the immune response by interacting with immune cells in the intestinal lining. They help differentiate between harmful pathogens and beneficial substances, contributing to immune system development and defense against infections.
- Protection Against Pathogens: The gut microbiota form a protective barrier against harmful microorganisms by competing for resources and producing antimicrobial compounds. This competitive exclusion helps prevent the growth and colonization of pathogenic bacteria, reducing the risk of infections.
- Synthesis of Vitamins and Metabolites: Gut bacteria are involved in the synthesis of certain vitamins, such as B vitamins and vitamin K. Additionally, they produce various metabolites, including short-chain fatty acids, which have been linked to improved metabolic health, reduced inflammation, and enhanced satiety.
- Mental Health and Brain Function: Emerging research suggests a strong connection between the gut and the brain, often referred to as the gut-brain axis. The gut microbiota can influence mood, behavior, and mental health. An imbalance in the gut microbiota has been associated with conditions like depression, anxiety, and even neurodegenerative diseases.
- Metabolic Health: The composition of gut microbiota can impact metabolism, influencing factors like weight gain, obesity, and insulin sensitivity. Certain gut bacteria are associated with a higher risk of metabolic disorders, while a diverse and balanced microbiome may promote metabolic health.
The U.S. obesity epidemic continues to have profound impacts on individuals’ health and socioeconomic well-being. Hispanic communities—constituting close to 19% of the total US population and making up the second-largest population in New Hampshire (and one of the fastest growing ethnic minority groups in the state)—are particularly vulnerable with more than 80% being overweight or suffering from obesity and many facing associated chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. Research from the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station is seeking to identify and quantify health outcomes across multiple and interrelated factors of food access, fiber intake and gut microbiota in New Hampshire’s Hispanic communities, and offer Granite State farmers better insights about new potential local market opportunities.
“The Hispanic/Latino population in the U.S. is very diverse from a cultural and sociodemographic perspective,” described Station scientist Maria Carlota Dao. “In New Hampshire, this population is rapidly growing—but we lack comprehensive information about the health and nutritional needs of Hispanics and Latinos in N.H.”
Examining Fiber Intake Among NH's Hispanic Community
Dao, an assistant professor in the agriculture, nutrition, and food systems department at the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, is particularly interested in the role of fiber intake. Fiber, an essential component of a healthy diet, undergoes fermentation by the gut microbiota, resulting in the production of metabolites—small molecules that are byproducts of microbial metabolism—that play a crucial role in human metabolism and appetite regulation.
“Ultimately, we’ll be able to determine the effectiveness of the tailored nutrition by assessing behavior changes of the populations we work with. We can also eventually make these interventions available to other states for use in their SNAP-Ed programs and really highlight the success of culturally tailored nutrition.” ~ Amy Hollar, associate state specialist, UNH Cooperative Extension
The study, which will leverage the deep community relationships developed by UNH Cooperative Extension specialists, will involve working with Hispanic adults aged 18-55 years with either a healthy or high body mass index and who reside in households eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—a federal program that provides food benefits to low-income households. The research team will assess food insecurity, dietary intake and gut microbiota measures, all of which have been validated to assure accurate data collection Hispanic populations. The researchers will also collect blood samples to evaluate how hormones involved in glucose regulation, hunger and satiety respond to the consumption of a meal.
“This study will give generate unprecedented information on the interplay between diet, the gut microbiome and human health in Hispanic/Latino adults,” Dao added. “Furthermore, it will reveal opportunities for our food systems and nutrition assistance programs to better serve the state’s Hispanic/Latino communities.”
Dao hopes that the research results will help develop effective and accessible lifestyle interventions for weight management. The findings also have the potential to better inform local food producers about the types of high-fiber foods that may be in demand, enabling Granite State farmers to access more robust markets while better serving the region’s growing Hispanic population.
The research is supported by members of UNH Cooperative Extension including, Amy Hollar, associate state specialist; field specialist Rebecca Betts; SNAP-Ed program manager Zeanny Egea Alvarado and SNAP-Ed teachers Awilda Muniz and Grace Tavares. As new evidence-based interventions are learned from this research, Hollar and her team will partner with the state’s Hispanic communities to provide programs and resources.
“Ultimately, we’ll be able to determine the effectiveness of the tailored nutrition by assessing behavior changes of the populations we work with,” said Hollar. “We can also eventually make these interventions available to other states for use in their SNAP-Ed programs and really highlight the success of culturally tailored nutrition.”
Interested in reading more about this research? Sign up to receive a printed version of the upcoming INSPIRED Research Report: Food Markets, Nutrition and Community Dynamics—due out this fall!
Dao’s work is supported by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station through joint funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (under Hatch award number 1026518) and the state of New Hampshire. You can learn more about Dao’s Fiber and Food Insecurity Research STudy (FIRST) on her lab website.