BACKGROUND: Environmental factors have a large influence on the composition of the human gut microbiota. One of the most influential and well-studied is host diet. To assess and interpret the impact of non-dietary factors on the gut microbiota, we endeavoured to determine the most appropriate method to summarise community variation attributable to dietary effects. Dietary habits are multidimensional with internal correlations. This complexity can be simplified by using dietary indices that quantify dietary variance in a single measure and offer a means of controlling for diet in microbiota studies. However, to date, the applicability of different dietary indices to gut microbiota studies has not been assessed. Here, we use food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) data from members of the TwinsUK cohort to create three different dietary measures applicable in western-diet populations: The Healthy Eating Index (HEI), the Mediterranean Diet Score (MDS) and the Healthy Food Diversity index (HFD-Index). We validate and compare these three indices to determine which best summarises dietary influences on gut microbiota composition.
RESULTS: All three indices were independently validated using established measures of health, and all were significantly associated with microbiota measures; the HEI had the highest t values in models of alpha diversity measures, and had the highest number of associations with microbial taxa. Beta diversity analyses showed the HEI explained the greatest variance of microbiota composition. In paired tests between twins discordant for dietary index score, the HEI was associated with the greatest variation of taxa and twin dissimilarity.
CONCLUSIONS: We find that the HEI explains the most variance in, and has the strongest association with, gut microbiota composition in a western (UK) population, suggesting that it may be the best summary measure to capture gut microbiota variance attributable to habitual diet in comparable populations.