Processed Foods and Your Gut!Oct 18, 2021
It’s true: Your gut doesn’t love processed, convenient, fast foods
We know that processed foods, sometimes known as “junk,” “fast,” or “convenience” foods, are not exactly health foods. Consuming too much can increase your risks for cancer and heart disease, etc. A new study shows that you can add inflammatory bowel disease to that list, too.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic (long-term) inflammation of the intestines (the lower part of your digestive system). IBD includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Estimates show that over 3 million Americans (1.3% of the population) have IBD.
More and more research shows how much your food choices impact your gut health. There is a big link between what you eat and the health of your gut. One reason why is that a big part of your immune system lives in and around your digestive system.
IBD is thought to happen in people who seem to be genetically susceptible when their immune systems get activated and cause inflammation.
A 2021 study published in the British Medical Journal looked deeper into these links between the foods people eat and their risk for IBD. The researchers found that the more processed foods people ate (especially ultra-processed), the more likely they were to get diagnosed with IBD over time. Note: It does not show that ultra-processed foods “cause” IBD, but rather that these foods are probably one factor that can increase IBD risk in those who seem to be genetically susceptible. The study authors defined ultra-processed foods as including packaged foods and beverages such as processed meat, cold cereal, sauces, soft drinks, candy, chocolate, puddings, potato chips, ice cream, pastries, cookies, and fruit drinks. And let’s face it: for many people that means several servings of these every day!
This was a “prospective cohort study” which is a fairly strong study design. This means that people were contacted several times over about 10 years. They were periodically asked what they ate and if they were diagnosed with IBD. In this particular study, there were 116,087 adults aged 35-70 years old across 21 countries. Each participant completed a questionnaire at least once every three years.
The results showed that eating five or more servings of ultra-processed foods each day almost doubled the risk of eventually getting diagnosed with IBD compared to someone who eats no more than one serving per day.
That’s right, the more junk foods you eat, the more likely you are to get digestive and other health problems.
The researchers wanted to look even deeper to see if age played a role. They split their results into two groups: those under 50 years old and those over 50 years old. They did not find a significant difference between the age groups. This shows that regardless of age, the more ultra-processed food is consumed, the higher the risk of IBD.
“Our findings support the hypothesis that intake of ultra-processed foods could be an environmental factor that increases the risk of IBD,” said the study authors.
This study didn’t discern what exactly it was about ultra-processed foods that increased the risk of IBD. Was it a specific process or ingredient? More research is needed to sort that out. The effect of high levels of ultra-processed foods on the digestive system over time may be partly due to the food’s impact on the friendly gut microbes that live there.
Regardless of the particular reasons why, the link is clear: The more processed foods that you consume—regardless of your age—the higher your risk for eventually being diagnosed with IBD.
What can you do with the information found in this new study?
Try reducing the number of servings of processed foods you eat each day—especially if you’re at risk of IBD. For example, you can swap in some minimally-processed foods such as:
- Instead of soft drinks or fruit drinks, try diluting real juice or adding fruit to your water
- Instead of sugary desserts and refined sweetened food, try fruit such as apples dipped in almond butter
- Instead of packaged cold cereal, try homemade oatmeal or chia pudding (see recipe below!)
- Learn to read food labels, and stay away from anything with added sugar or chemicals!
Lastly, there are many ways to support your gut and your microbiome.
A high quality, live probiotic supplement is one, and I recommend you get yours though a natural health practitioner or at a health food store where you can discuss which one is right for you.
And of course there are many different kinds of fermented foods. Consuming fermented foods DAILY in small amounts can help add good bacteria to our guts. The human digestive system is packed full of microorganisms: in fact, bacteria outnumber human cells 10 to 1! This is what’s known as our Microbiome. We actually evolved together over millions of years and depend on each other to support our health. Cultures around the world have used fermentation for thousands of years, and each region has its own fermented specialty. From tempeh to kimchi to kefir and beyond, fermented foods have played an important role in our health. Fermentation was likely discovered accidentally and recognized as a process to help preserve food for longer (that’s why it was often used in the days before refrigeration). Beneficial microorganisms like yeast, bacteria and mold are all around us. When we put them in an environment where they can proliferate and thrive, fermentation will happen! During the fermentation process, microorganisms transform sugars into acids or alcohol. The result? A highly nutritious, probiotic-rich food that is fantastic for our digestion and immunity.
Bottom line - Just Eat Real Food!
Have you missed any of my recent blogs?
Coconut Yogurt Overnight Oats
- ⅔ cup Oats (rolled)
- 2 Tbsp Chia Seeds
- ¼ tsp Cinnamon
- ½ tsp Vanilla Extract
- 1 cup Unsweetened Coconut Yogurt
- 1 cup Canned Coconut Milk (full fat)
- ½ cup Blueberries (fresh or thawed from frozen)
- Combine all ingredients and divide into containers. Seal and place in the fridge overnight, or for at least 8 hours.
- Remove from the fridge and enjoy - for breakfast, snack or dessert!
Narula, N., Wong, E., Dehghan, M., Mente, A., Rangarajan, S., Lanas, F., Lopez-Jaramillo, P., Rohatgi, P., Lakshmi, P., Varma, R. P., Orlandini, A., Avezum, A., Wielgosz, A., Poirier, P., Almadi, M. A., Altuntas, Y., Ng, K. K., Chifamba, J., Yeates, K., Puoane, T., … Yusuf, S. (2021). Association of ultra-processed food intake with risk of inflammatory bowel disease: prospective cohort study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 374, n1554.
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