May 10, 2009

Obesity, Probiotics, and Pregnancy

Photo credit: mahalie

Good news for pregnant yogurt-lovers! Scientists in Finland looked into the effects of probiotic consumption during pregnancy. And they found that probiotics helped reduce post-pregnancy obesity levels.

Probiotics, as you may recall, are those "good" bugs that live in cultured foods like yogurt and kefir. (As opposed to the "bad" bugs you get when you drop your food on the kitchen floor and, if no-one's looking, decide to invoke the "five second rule" and eat it anyway.)

Nachos: Sadly, not a great candidate for the 5 second rule.
Unless you're really, really, hungry.

Photo: AKMA

So, you might wonder, what if you're not pregnant--can you eat a bunch of yogurt or takes some capsules and lose some quick belly fat?

Well, I wondered that too. And I am still wondering that. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of research yet. But in the meantime, there are lots of reasons you might benefit from eating probiotics anyway.

But First, The Pregnancy Study

The researchers assigned 256 pregnant women randomly into one of three groups. The first group (we'll call it the "Lucky" group) got capsules with lactobacillus and bifidobacterium as well as dietary counseling. The second group (the "Dummies") got dietary counseling and placebo "dummy" pills with no good bugs in them. The third group (the "Loser" group) got bupkus--no dietary counseling and no real capsules, just the placebos.

The women took the capsules starting in their first trimester of pregnancy, and continued until "the women stopped exclusive breastfeeding, after up to six months." (Presumably they meant after the baby stopped exclusive breastfeeding--unless there are some very odd diets new moms are trying out these days).

The researchers were particular interested in "central obesity," which is worse for your health than the big-butt kind of obesity. Central obesity was defined as "a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more or a waist circumference over 80 centimetres." (Or for those of us who live in the United States where we're too damn lazy to just suck it up and switch to the metric system like the rest of the world--80 centimetres is about 31 and a half inches.)

(Picky, boring research side note: Here's where I thought the methodology got kinda funky. How accurate are stomach measurements during pregnancy at capturing actual fat gain? Probably not very. Because one woman might be carrying twin sumo wrestlers, while another woman may be pregnant with a tiny future ballerina. So the researchers didn't gather initial waist measurements, even though central obesity is what they were mostly interested in. Apparently they couldn't go back in time and get them pre-pregnancy. Instead it looks like they just used post-partum averages to compare the groups, which would mean a lot of noise in the data).

Anyway, turns out only 25 per cent of the women who had been given the probiotics as well as diet advice fell into the "central obesity" category, compared to 43 per cent of the women who got dietary counseling alone, and 40 per cent of the women who got neither diet advice nor probiotics. The average body fat differences were less dramatic, but I'm assuming they were statistically significant: 28 per cent, 29 per cent, and 30 per cent respectively.

Blah blah blah. You lost me at 256 pregnant women. Get to the point, willya?

Oh, hi there! Yeah, so it seems like there's at least something interesting going on with probiotics perhaps helping fight post-pregnancy obesity. Keep an eye out for further studies.

(And does anyone else find it interesting how little impact dietary counseling had compared to the probiotic pills? Sounds like either most women pretty much blew off the advice, or that the standard nutritional advice doesn't do squat towards preventing obesity.)

Why Did They Just Study Pregant Women?

One might wonder why the researchers chose to study the probiotic/obesity connection in pregnant women since pregnant women are so hard to measure and all?

Well, it turns out one of the reasons was that the researchers wanted to keep following the women and their babies to see whether the pre-natal probiotics will influence the babies' health.

“Particularly during pregnancy, the impacts of obesity can be immense, with the effects seen both in the mother and the child. Bacteria are passed from mother to child through the birth canal, as well as through breast milk, and research indicates that early nutrition may influence the risk of obesity later in life. There is growing evidence that this approach might open a new angle on the fight against obesity, either through prevention or treatment.”

Dang it. Cute babies... they win every time!

So Should We All Start Eating Yogurt For Weight Management?

Alas, I couldn't find much other non-pregnancy research on probiotics fighting obesity, other than the "scientists are looking in to it" kind of thing. But it's possible that my hours and hours of scholarly research 3 minutes on google might have missed something useful.

However, you can bet if it turns out there's any connection, scientists and product marketers will be all over this one.

But There Are Other Great Reasons to Get "Cultured" Too!

Mayo Clinic has a brief run-down on some of the medical benefits of probiotics. Like they can:

  • Treat diarrhea, especially the kind you get after taking antibiotics
  • Prevent and treat vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections
  • Treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Reduce bladder cancer recurrence
  • Shorten the duration of intestinal infections
  • Prevent and treat inflammation following colon surgery (pouchitis)
  • Prevent eczema in children
  • Aid in general health

Which Bugs for Which Problems?

While the supplements in the pregnancy study were the commonly seen lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, there are lots of other different probiotics strains out there. Some work better than others for specific medical conditions.

For a helpful guide to probiotics you may want to check out Love That Bug (Old-timer Cranky Fitness readers may recognize that as that the site of our friend Dawn Rotarangi of The Flightless Writer). There are lots of specifics there, whether you're dealing with hay fever, IBS, "women' stuff," or a bunch of other medical issues.

And speaking of "women's stuff"...

Why Women MUST Eat Yogurt!

I probably ran this video already, since it's a year old and I thought it was hilarious when I first saw it. Anyway, here it is again:

So do you folks make an effort to get some good bugs in your diet? Would you eat more if it turned out it discouraged extra fat around your waist?


  1. I started taking them because any change in environment whether it be a medical exam or having sex I was getting yeast infections, I take them daily and it has also helped with the IBS. I haven't had a yeast infection in years. I went on and found out that culturelle is one of the best brands out there it has the amount of bacteria you need.

    I wonder what kind of $$ they were offering for this study for pregnant women to agree to be their guinea pigs.

  2. Most of the yogurt sold in stores have so much added sugar and flavors, and are sold in tiny little over priced containers that I completely stopped buying them years ago. I do buy the full fat greek yougurt and use it in small amounts for salad dressings and to thicken soups. Maybe I should buy the nonfat, but I can't get my arms around how removing the fat and replacing it with sugar is better...maybe less calories, but not necesarily healthier.

    And Cranky, thanks for your encouragement and kind words yesterday!! :-)

  3. y'know.. before I got pregnant, i finally found ONE flavor of yogurt that I actually kind of liked. I knew it was good for me, and I was trying to loose weight, so it was a good healthy type breakfast item that traveled well to work. alas, not long into my pregnancy i couldn't stand even the smell of it anymore! Thankfully now I can eat it again... and i still get weird looks from the clerk when i buy 10 of the same flavor.

    on another note.. how come the researchers stopped following the women when "the women stopped exclusive breastfeeding, after up to six months"? Even if they were still breastfeeding at all after 6mo, they were burning extra calories (it's like 500 cal per kid when EBFing).. so that would affect weight.

    Another benefit to eating yogurt? helps prevent a breastfeeding mom from getting thrush! (TMI, super painful breast yeast infection) Since I fought with that undiagnosed toe-curling pain for 2.5 months, you know I'm eating yogurt and taking acidophilus every day!

    as it helped me loose weight? nah... tho the oatmeal dark chocolate chip cookies may be counteracting it :)

  4. I eat yogurt pretty much every day, but it's mainly because I don't drink milk and I don't eat a lot of meat so I can use the extra protein. I consider the bacterial cultures to be a bonus.

  5. Pregnancy research AND Sarah Haskins? I love you. You just made my whole day! Although mostly I just like this study because yogurt is one of the few foods I've been able to eat daily and really enjoy this pregnancy. Had you said fish (like all those other pregnancy studies) I would have had to be depressed;)

  6. PS> I find it entertaining the researchers had the women take probiotic capsules rather than eating actual healthy yogurt. Love science.

  7. For a second there I thought that was a photo of Charlotte :-)

    Thanks for this information! I don't know much about any of this :-(

  8. Is it possible that some women in the non-probiotic group were eating yogurt? Or were they banned from the stuff.

    Cause if they ate the yogurt, this may be a case of needing to take the pills to get enough of the bacteria.

  9. If I could eat dairy I would eat yogurt as it's a healthy replacement for sour cream. I take capsules as needed.

  10. Silly scientists.

    How can they possibly call this a conclusive study when they don't know what the women's waist measurements were before pregnancy?

    I will admit, though, that yogurt can be very helpful when you have diarrhea. Really.

  11. I eat yogurt regularly, have for many years. My mother struggles with IBS so I got to hear many, many years ago how that stuff helps keep your tummy healthy. Plus it tastes good.

  12. Dang you, Crabby! Why can't you come out with great studies and funny videos about a food product that agrees with me? (Yes, nutritional studies should exclusively focus on me. That's just common sense, right?)

    Great post!

  13. Patty I'm with you on the full cream Greek yoghurt - personally I think low fat is more processed and what I'm slowly coming to grips with is that the further anything is from the way nature intented, the more chance it's likely to be unhealthy for you.

    Cranky - that video is an absolute hoot... now I'm wondering if my husband is secretly planning on having a sex change. Our fridge has 8 LARGE yogurt tubs in them as I write and they have nothing to do with me. But I do have to say that he does seem to have perfect downward movement of his food and have a bod most people would kill for. Conclusion???? Gotta be all that yoghurt I'd guess.... um he does run marathons too but I'm guessing that's probably just a side issue to the real issue which is that he eats loads of yoghurt!

  14. Yogurt is so amazingly easy to grow yourself - I can't imagine why more folks don't.

    I buy little single serve plain yogurts as starters (greek is good, but others work just as well)... and make a half gallon at a time. Total supplies: 1/2 gallon skim milk, 1/3 c. nonfat dry milk, 1 small cup yogurt (you can use the last of your previous batch). Then, flavor it myself for me or the kids (jam, splenda, brown sugar, honey, sugar, and/or chocolate syrup).

    My kids can polish off a half gallon in a day (unless I slow them down).

    But, I know that it isn't oversweetened (do you know that "gogurt" comes in cotton candy flavor? - gak).

    You can buy something to make it in (I have a yogatherm). But, now I realize that a small drink cooler would be just as good.

  15. Is it because I know a tiny bit about food that I can spot the gaping crevasses in their methodology? Or do I just pay more attention when/because it's about food?

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  16. I actually hatedhatedhated yogurt...until I wound up prego the first time around. Now it's a daily necessity. Although I like it best when I mix a couple spoonfulls of GrapeNuts in. Crunchy!

    But I agree, most of the stuff on the shelves is so loaded with sugar and over processed it's disgusting. So, I'm picky. *shrug* I made my own was awesome, but I'm also lazy and rarely think that far ahead.

    This study is so flawed it's ridiculous...there are so many factors with preggo women and weight. The only way I'd believe anything is if they studied the gals for 3 months before and at least a year (preferrably 18 months) post kid. I was one of those unlucky fools whom breastfeeding = no help with the weight loss. I lost a lot the first 2 weeks, then nothing until almost the kids first birthday. Then it started falling off. No change in habits. I blame the does my hubby. : )

  17. Huh. Those body fat differences don't sound significant to me. I do take probiotics whenever I travel to India and find they're very good at preventing "Delhi belly" in the diarrhea sense, but not so much in the put-on-10-lbs-because-you're-eating-so-many-samosas sense.

  18. I take probiotics but I forgot to take them this morning. I'd rather not eat yogurt, mostly because I have none.

    Also, posts about pregnancy *snore*.
    Now Ovary posts...I can go for.

  19. No, I only take them after antibiotics or after an upset tum to get the bacteria back to normal. I am yet to be convinced that we need them, to be honest.

    But, if they were proven to help with weight issues, I would consume vast quantities!

  20. Okay, weightloss after pregnancy withstanding, does the good bacteria in your digestive system make you fart more or less? Because, yeah - I fart, but my three sons have to be bribed daily not to fill the car with their rancid gas on the way home from school. Can I get more greek yogurt into them for a sweet ride home, or will it make matters worse?

  21. What you said is right on the mark.

    "However, you can bet if it turns out there's any connection, scientists and product marketers will be all over this one."

    I can see all the BS marketing for this one. Haven't we seen this kind of thing again and again? The next "miracle" food? Sheesh.

    Anyway---while I love science and. it has of course helped us in many ways, there is a ridiculous side to it too. These constant "studies" on one food is kind of laughable. The stuff that goes on at the cellular level is SO complex, fact moving and complicated-----with who knows how many variable---that it is silly to focus on this "One food" to provide all these benefits to our bodies. This becomes even more evident when we see the marketing that goes on to sell the new "discovery."

  22. Interesting stuff! I eat it for the reasons per the Mayo clinic study but so if there is an added benefit of helping fight fat, all the better, especially with my age hormones fighting me! I will eat it no matter what! I never have had to & will not ever have to worry about the preggo part...

  23. In an experiment with a sample size of 1 person (me) the last 5 years of daily yoghurt consumption have led to an increase in belly fat. Hooray, now I don't have to search google for the scientific research, I know the answer!! Love the video :-)

  24. Crabby, I sometimes think you are a bit omnisciently psychic. I was having an interesting Mother's Day conversation about probiotics just yesterday.

    (And happy Mother's Day to all moms and expectant moms! I personally think it should be Mothers' Week but also generally think everyone should have more parties and brunches if they want them ...)

    Anyway, I've been charged with collecting the research so thank you for your excellent article and the forward to your excellent list of recommended probiotics.

    (Because, as any representative sample of my friends will tell you, everyone's biochemistry is different.)

    P.S. "central obesity" -- anyone else think this sounds like an Urban Planning issue?

  25. Probiotics rule...they seem to do a better job than a day's worth of brown rice and quinoa.

    Oh, and did you see Kristen Wiig's performance as Jamie Lee on the Activia commercial on SNL? F'ing hilarious:

  26. It turns out, The Cochrane Collaboration (they evaluate health therapy research and are considered the definitive word on health therapies) says that yogourt will help when you or your kids have diarrhea

    Wish I had know that last week when the lower and upper GI gods had forsaken my household!

    Here's the link to the review on yogourt as treatment for the runs:

    Happy trotting!

  27. Hey! Thanks for the link-love, possum! You've earned yourself two cupcakes!


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