Gut Check with a Ten-Year-Old


“That’s disturbing” said my ten-year-old nephew when I explained the concept of fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT). He’d just given himself an FMT treatment as his father supervised, looking a little confused.gut-check

We were playing Gut Check — a new board game created by David Coil and published by MO BIO Laboratories. A cult hit among scientists from Maryland to California, the game is described as “scientific, strategic and competitive”. As in, you have to be prepared to give your fellow players botulism if you really want to win.

I was reviewing the game for an assignment, and I needed a test crew. The box specified an age range of 13 and up, but since it was Canadian Thanksgiving and I had family (but no scientists) around, I wound up playing the game with a group that included E, a smart and competitive fifth grader.

Each of us had a board that represented our personal gut microbiome, with microbe cards that passed in and out. It took us a while to get the hang of the game — each turn brought several options, like putting down a microbe card or playing events like “train trip” or “kanamycin” (an antibiotic). But once we got going, we were laying down C. difficile and L. acidophilus like pros.

“Is yogurt healthy?” asked E at breakfast the next morning. He wanted some. Only when we played Gut Check again that night did I realize why he had requested it: he’d remembered the rule specifying that the player who had most recently eaten yogurt should go first. E was always alert for opportunities to gain a competitive advantage.

After two more rounds, E confirmed he had learned a lot from the game. He was going to make sure he told his friends that “the plague” was caused by bacteria and not actually by rats. No regrets about playing — even if he can never un-know the concept of a fecal transplant.

Well-Fed Microbiome Cookbook Update

It’s now been more than three months since the launch of The Well-Fed Microbiome Cookbook. And what an amazing three months it’s been! From start to finish, the book was a really fun project — a nice break from the technical writing and ghostwriting I do in my daily work.

I had finished the book’s content for a tight deadline in February, and then turned my attention to other things. July rolled around and I had almost no expectations for the book launch — so when emails and messages started coming in from friends, family, colleagues, and strangers, it was truly heartwarming. The book even spent a couple of weeks as a “nutrition” bestseller on Amazon Canada (hot on the heels of Deepak Chopra):


Here are a few of the promo activities I’ve been doing along the way:

A Reddit Ask Me Anything — I did this with the editor’s encouragement, despite having no experience with Reddit. I was so impressed with Redditors’ smart questions and insights. Now I’m trying not to let Reddit become a new online addiction.

A podcast interview with the insightful clinician and communicator, Frances Arnold.

A book giveaway by GoodBelly.

A Q&A with this snappy blogger & citizen scientist, Lianne Campbell. (Yes, another Campbell, but no relation!)

…Also, scientist & blogger Esmeralda has been testing out different recipes from the cookbook and posting photos on her blog. I agree with her assessment that there aren’t enough photos in the cookbook, so I appreciate her sharing the pics from her own kitchen!

If you haven’t seen the book and want to know more, you can read some of the Amazon reviews — sixty and counting.


Mini book review: The Human Superorganism

“If we indiscriminately wage war on microbes, we wage war on ourselves,” says Cornell immunotoxicologist Rodney Dietert in his book, The Human Superorganism. That’s because, he argues, emerging knowledge about the microbiome means a human being can only be viewed as an inseparable tangle of human and microbial genes.


The book is a battle cry: Dietert calls for medicine to go beyond its dogged focus on mammalian genes and physiology, and he details a list of predictions about the future of “superorganism” health care.

The book shines when Dietert describes the workings of the immune system with vivid metaphors. But he gets carried away when he boldly attributes the rise of non-communicable diseases–allergies, cancer, heart disease, obesity, and others–to six microbiome-disrupting factors, including shifts in diet and the overuse of antibiotics. In fact, those who have dug deep into the data know these connections between microbiome disruptors and specific diseases are still uncertain. Only in time will we know the real nature of these connections.

Dietert’s passion for the topic may have led him to assume too much; it seems he forgot that, in science, “I said it first” has no heft. Instead, dozens of scientists are toiling away in laboratories around the world, working with mice and newborns and fecal matter, to be able to say: “I showed it first”.

Growing interest in gut microbiota science among dietitians

Last week I had the pleasure of travelling to Granada (Spain) to provide media coverage of the International Congress of Dietetics — a  periodic meeting of dietitians and nutritionists from all over the world, held once every four years. With about 1300 participants this year, the range of topics at #ICD2016 was huge: from sustainable farming, to nutritional considerations on a vegan diet, to how dietitians can get started on social media.


I also attended two sessions covering the gut microbiota and diet: one by Natasha Haskey, RD (Canada), and the other by Francisco Guarner, MD (Spain). At both of these talks, the room was packed.

This interest in general wasn’t a surprise — at the conferences I’ve attended over the past two years, most of the microbiome-related sessions have standing-room only. But in Granada I found the growing interest among dietitians especially intriguing. Because on one hand, gut microbiota science hasn’t changed things for dietitians all that much; existing nutritional recommendations still stand after what we’ve learned about the microbiota. But on the other hand, since diet appears to be one of the primary environmental (and controllable) factors that can manipulate the gut microbiota, the role of the dietitian could be growing in importance as we learn more about how gut microbiota affects health.