Kristina Campbell is a science writer from British Columbia specialized in communicating about gut microbiota, digestive health and nutrition. She has been part of our Publishing Team since 2014. Kristina has recently published The Well-Fed Microbiome Cookbook, with foreword from microbiota experts Justin and Erika Sonnenburg. We seized this opportunity to interview Kristina about her book and the experience of writing it. A stimulating and clear interview with key take-home messages about the importance of gut microbiota.
First with a blog and now with a book, it is clear that you have a special interest in microbiome science. How did this interest start?
Fermented foods were my first point of contact with this field of science. When I started to investigate what the gut microbiome had to do with my own health problems about a decade ago, I joined a group of people interested in making and consuming fermented foods for improving health. There was so much information about fermented foods, and so many stories of health transformations — and yet I wasn’t sure how much to believe. I decided I would let the scientific studies be my guide. I started digging into the studies and talking to scientists, and since then it’s been impossible for me to stop.
Why a cookbook?
I’m inspired by scientists like Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, who do cutting-edge work on the microbiome, and are also parents who want to act on the best available information in their daily lives. With their 2015 book The Good Gut, they engaged with the public in an open and honest way to show how they are applying the science for their family’s best possible health, even as the science continues to evolve. I was thrilled when they agreed to write the foreword for The Well-Fed Microbiome.
I used to study linguistics and semiotics, so I think it’s crucial to consider the meaning and connotations of any concept. When people hear the word “science”, there’s sometimes a lot of baggage. I’ve encountered people who are completely turned off by the word. As a science writer, I’m passionate about science as a “way of knowing” and I’m always looking for ways to engage with those who don’t usually seek out scientific content. So what subjects, what formats, enable me to connect with those individuals? Well, we all engage with food to some extent. Food is intrinsically attractive, since it appeals to the senses and enables us to connect meaningfully with others. With the cookbook, I’ve helped create what I hope is a very inviting text and added some scientific information that might offer a new perspective.
Which of the potential applications of the microbiome science is the most surprising/interesting for you?
I love the nutrition aspect because it’s so accessible, so applicable in everyday life. We’re in an era where reading the headlines about nutrition science can be confusing, so many of us latch onto one kind of diet or another, hoping it improves our weight or our health. But I think, over the next decade, microbiome science is going to take us to a place where we understand more precisely the range and the limitations of what humans can eat for optimal health, in what amounts or proportions, and the impact of our genes and personal microbiomes. With this increased knowledge, we’ll be able to focus increasingly on prevention of disease — as scientist Rob Knight says, having a “microbial GPS” to guide us through our lives in good health.
How will the microbiome science impact our lives? And our health?
In the area of chronic disease, microbiome science could lead to some very important insights. Health professionals are very worried about the growing incidence of a long list of chronic diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. We don’t know exactly how all of these relate to the microbiome yet, but scientists are working on it. New treatments might emerge, but more importantly, new ways to navigate prevention given our genetic predispositions.
What can readers find in your book?
The first few chapters of the book will bring readers up to date on current science about diet and the gut microbiome. I emphasize that, in contrast with many other diet books, The Well-Fed Microbiome does not contain a diet plan that I made up. It’s a practical take on current science, and as such, it might evolve over time as we learn more. It’s true that this overall field of science at an early stage, but it’s progressing very quickly with the constant publication of new studies.
The book divides what we know into two sections: one “phase” for those who have IBS-like gastrointestinal symptoms, and the other for healthy individuals who don’t have symptoms. The recipes that follow are labelled according to the phase for which they’re appropriate.
What does science say about the importance of nutrition for our microbiome?
Of all the factors we know can manipulate our gut microbiome, diet appears to be one of the biggest. Large-scale studies find patterns in your gut microbiome based on whether you like eating milk chocolate or dark chocolate, for example, and based on how many different types of plants (fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes) you consume. The task ahead is to verify what effects these dietary gut microbiota manipulations have on our short-term and long-term health.
A take-home message for our readers:
We’ve always vaguely known there’s a link between food and health — it’s why most of us don’t have a diet consisting of fried foods and candy. But microbiome science is making the link between diet and health so much more immediate. As soon as you eat a meal, your gut microbes start to puzzle over what you ate, using it and adapting for their own survival. And probably they are influencing your health in the process.
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