More good gut bacteria that help prevent diarrhea and inflammatory disease was found in African children who eat a high-fiber diet compared to children who eat a western diet.

The study found that children from industrial societies who ate western diet typically high in fat and sugar had the type of gut bacteria linked to obesity, allergies and other diseases such as diabetes.

The diets of 30 children between the ages of 1 and 6 from Italy and rural Africa were compared in the study published in the Aug. 2-6 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The children had been free of antibiotics and probiotics for at least six months and information on their diets were provided by their parents.

Fifteen children were from the rural village of Nanoro, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, who ate millet grain, sorghum wheat, legumes and vegetables with little meat protein.

The 15 Italian children ate a diet low in fiber, high in animal protein, sugar and fat, and ate more calories than their African counterparts (1,512 calories a day vs. 996 calories a day among 2-to-6 year olds).

Using DNA sequencing, researchers found that children from Africa who ate largely a vegetarian diet have fewer bacteria that are responsible for causing common stomach upset and diarrhea compared with children from Italy.

Among both groups, all breast-fed children had similar gut bacteria but when the children started to eat culturally distinct solid foods, the gut microflora started to change.

Compared with the European children, African children’s gut bacteria were more diverse with high numbers of bacteria that digest plant fibers. The bacteria break down fibers that humans typically can't and make short-chain fatty acids that give people energy and protect them from inflammatory gut diseases such as Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disorder.

Researchers were surprised at the finding because African children often drank water polluted with such bacteria.

African children also had unique bacterial strains that weren’t found in European children.

Introduction of antibiotics, vaccines and better hygiene could have contributed to the gut changes in European children, eliminating bacteria that can help prevent allergies and other autoimmune conditions.

“We have probably lost many of the species that these children still have,” said study coauthor Duccio Cavalieri, a microbiologist at the University of Florence in Italy. “We should somehow discover what is out there and discover what we might have lost.”

The finding may lead to new probiotics that improve the digestive health of Westerners, who were found to have a less diverse intestinal microbes.

Researchers said children in Burkina Faso likely got many of their healthy digestive bacteria from their mothers’ birth canals and skin, as well as from their environment, such as from the termites they sometimes eat.

“We’re not saying you should eat termites,” Cavalieri said. But, he says, people might be able to get those healthy gut bacteria from new probiotic pills that could be developed in the future.

Researchers believe they may be able to act on the body’s bacteria to prevent diseases commonly found in Western societies.