A diet rich in bananas, chickpeas and peanuts improves intestinal bacteria in malnourished children, helping to revive their growth, according to research.
An American study of children in Bangladesh found that these foods were particularly effective in stimulating healthy microbes.
The growth of bones, brain and body is then more likely.
The World Health Organization said that about 150 million children under the age of five in the world were malnourished.
In addition to being weak and small, many malnourished children end up with incomplete or "immature" bacteria communities in the intestine, compared to healthy children of the same age.
Stimulate good bacteria
This is what scientists at the University of Washington in St. Louis thought could be the source of poor growth – but not all foods are as effective at solving the problem.
The researchers studied the main types of bacteria found in the healthy intestines of Bangladeshi children.
And then they tested what types of foods stimulated these important bacterial communities in mice and pigs.
Then, in a one – month trial, reported in the journal Science, involving 68 Bangladeshi malnourished children aged 12 to 18 months, the research team tested different diets on small groups.
After closely following the recovery of children, a diet has stood out: it contains bananas, soy, peanut flour and chickpeas in a paste.
This diet has been shown to stimulate intestinal microbes related to bone growth, brain development and immune function.
He also used affordable and acceptable ingredients for the people of Bangladesh.
Professor Jeffrey Gordon, of the University of Washington, who led the research with colleagues at the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, said the goal was "to target the microbes to heal them ".
"Microbes do not see bananas or peanuts, they only see a mix of nutrients that they can use and share," he said.
"This formulation worked best in animals and humans, producing the greatest repair."
Other diets, dominated by rice or lentils, did poorly and sometimes damaged the intestines even more.
Professor Gordon stated that the reason these foods worked best was not quite clear yet, but a much larger trial was underway to determine if the diet had long-term effects on gain weight and height of children.
"It's a community of microbes that extends well beyond the gut," he said.
"It's intimately linked to the state of health and we need to find the mechanisms to fix them later in life."
He added that in other countries, different foods can have similar effects.
What is the microbiome?
- You are more microbe than human – if you count all the cells in your body, only 43% are human.
- The rest is your microbiome and includes unicellular bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea.
- The human genome – the complete set of genetic instructions for a human being – is composed of 20,000 instructions called genes
- But add up all the genes in your microbiome and you will get between 2 million and 20 million microbial genes.
- It is known as the second genome and is related to diseases such as allergy, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson's disease, the effectiveness of anticancer drugs and even depression and autism.