A new treatment for malnourished children, using food that promotes a healthy microbiome, has been found to aid recovery better than current alternatives.

Malnourished children often struggle to recover and find gaining weight again extremely difficult, even with sufficient food. Scientists have long suspected this is due to the role of the gut microbiome. Gut microbiomes are complex ecosystems of bacteria and aid digestion, nutrient uptake and immune response. Compared to healthy children, the microbiomes of malnourished children are not as developed, which could prevent them from gaining weight.

Researchers investigated the gut microbiomes found in healthy Bangladeshi children and determined the proportion of each species present in the ecosystem. Using mice and pigs with bacteria-free digestive tracts they investigated how different foods affected the formation of their microbiomes. The foods that best promoted the same mature microbiome ecosystem as the healthy children were selected for the clinical trial. These were found to be plant-based foods with high protein contents such as bananas, chickpeas and peanut flour.

The clinical trial studied 63 children with moderate acute malnutrition, who were ill but not close to death. The children were randomly divided into four treatment groups, with three of the groups receiving a different microbiome promoting food mixture and the last group receiving the currently prescribed treatment food.

The children were tested for blood proteins that promoted healthy development including brain development, bone growth and immune function. The children in one of the treatment groups with the microbiome-promoting foods showed they had more proteins associated with healthy development and gut microbiomes closely resembling those of healthy children. The food mix that they were given will therefore be considered for the malnutrition standard treatment in the future.

However, scientists have raised concerns that for children with severe malnutrition intervention with microbiome promoting foods may not be enough and alternative treatments would be required. Genetic based treatments are one possibility, as many human genes have been found to influence microbiome composition. They stress that this research also needs to be considered as a proactive approach to prevent malnutrition.