A recent editorial in Nature Microbiology Reviews by Dr. Didier Raoult raised questions about the potential role of probiotics in obesity. It is based both on studies indicating weight gain in humans and farm animals in probiotic trials as well as some laboratory animal data. The conclusions based on clinical trials for treatment of disease are pretty weak, since while animals or people may have gained weight, that does not mean they gained fat (if you get better because of a probiotic, you gain weight, but that is probably a healthy response and not obesity). There is some interesting lab animal work that shows changes in fat deposition in response to some probiotics, but it’s rather preliminary.
It’s way too early to declare that consuming probiotics is a risk factor for obesity. Several letters to the Editor were submited by leading probiotic researchers in response to Dr. Raoult’s editorial, contradicting some of the statements that were made. Personally, I don’t see convincing evidence of a risk but Dr. Raoult’s comments should serve as a reminder that probiotics can have broad and poorly understood effects on the intestinal bacterial population, and correspondingly broad and poorly understood effects on the body. That’s why probiotics should be scrutinized like drugs, in terms of safety, effectiveness and quality control. If someone is using a probiotic for themselves or their pet for a defined reason and it seems to be working, I wouldn’t recommend stopping because of these largely theoretical concerns about obesity. However, we should perhaps think about why we are using probiotics and the potential costs versus benefits. I doubt this is really going to be a major issue but it’s a good one to think about.