While it might be easy to reach for a bag of chips or a package of cookies to satisfy your appetite, new research shows that these foods can increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In a study published in the BMJ, researchers found that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of IBD. Ultra-processed foods include packaged baked goods, fizzy drinks, and sugary cereals, which often contain high levels of added sugar, fat, and salt, but lack vitamins and fiber.
The analysis included about 116,000 adults ages 35 to 70 years old living in 21 low-, middle-, and high-income countries who were taking part in the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. Compared with people who ate less than one serving of ultra-processed food per day, researchers found an 82% increased risk of IBD among those who consumed five or more servings per day, and a 67% increased risk for those who ate one to four servings per day. The research is consistent with the current epidemiology of IBD in countries that have adopted Western diets. In countries like India and China, IBD was not in existence or had very low incidence 10 to 20 years ago, now it’s rampant.
IBD is a result of a malfunctioning immune system. Although the exact cause is unknown, some risk factors include:
- Family history
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
You can reduce your risk of developing IBD by:
- Eating nutrient-dense foods
- Exercising regularly
- Quitting cigarette smoking
The Missing Link and Areas for Future Research
According to researchers, this study does not establish causality. The results did not account for dietary changes over time but relied on self-reported diagnoses. Experts believe that further research is needed to identify specific potential contributory factors among processed foods that might be responsible for the observed associations in this study. Questions remain, for instance, are there any biological factors interacting with components in ultra-processed food that triggers IBD? It also remains unclear how chemicals in processed food trigger the disease in young people.
In the meantime, doctors say that people living with IBD should alter their diet. For example, the Crohn’s disease exclusion diet is based on excluding parts of the Western diet that are associated with intestinal inflammation such as processed meat, dairy, and packaged snacks, and replacing them with whole foods and complex and simple carbohydrates. There’s also the Mediterranean diet, which involves a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, seafood, whole grains, and olive oil, and a low intake of red and processed meats as well as sweets. Then finally there is the specific carbohydrate diet, which involves a high intake of unprocessed meats, poultry, fish, and most fruits and vegetables, with restrictions on grains, dairy, and sweeteners, apart from cheese, yogurt, and honey. Doctors suggest that the best way to deal with IBD is to eat as healthy as possible and stick to home-cooked meals.