Junk food kills off healthy bacteria in your gut and triggers harmful inflammation

GRONINGEN, Netherlands — Apparently, there’s a good reason “junk food” has that name. A new study finds diets containing animal products, alcohol, and sugar are wreaking havoc on human gut health. Researchers in the Netherlands say junk food disrupts healthy gut balance by killing off the good bacteria in your body.

Burgers, sausages, and sugary beverages can all trigger inflammation which drives good bacteria from the intestine’s microbiome. They also increase the risk for a host of potentially deadly conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.

A team from the University of Groningen based their findings on a food frequency survey of 1,425 people. The results reveal processed products have a link to harmful bacteria across all participants. These foods include meats, soft drinks, and other items study authors say fall into the “fast food cluster.”

“In the absence of fiber, these bacteria turn to the mucus layer of the gut to feed off, leading to an erosion of the integrity of the gut, note the researchers,” corresponding author Professor Rinse Weersma and researchers write in a media release.

Eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, and oily fish like salmon and mackerel had the opposite effect. Moreover, researchers find a Mediterranean diet dampens inflammation. Processed and animal-derived foods displayed a consistent link with species of bacteria that increase inflammation.

“These bacteria are known for their anti-inflammatory effects in the intestine through fermentation of fiber to SCFAs (short-chain fatty acids),” researchers explain in the journal Gut. “A dietary pattern that is traditionally high in these foods is the Mediterranean diet which has been linked to a lower IBD-risk.”

What makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy?

The study finds these foods are rich in healthy fats that protect the gut lining. Red wine, coffee, buttermilk, and yoghurt have a similar affect.

“Accumulating literature demonstrates an anti-inflammatory role of polyphenol-rich foods such as coffee, tea, red wine and fruit,” Prof. Weersma’s team writes.

Previous studies show red wine can reduce inflammation and cholesterol levels in healthy and obese individuals. Despite the new results, researchers caution that too much drinking will eventually have a negative impact on gut health.

“In contrast, total alcohol intake and spirits were associated with pro-inflammatory pathways in our study.”

Maintaining gut balance to fight off disease

The body’s ecosystem, the microbiome, directly affects immunity. An imbalance in these bacteria and viruses lead to a growing number of inflammatory conditions.

In the study, 331 participants had inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. Doctors had diagnosed another 223 with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). The other 871 had a normal gut. Study authors separated each participant’s food choices into 25 groups measured in grams per day.

“The findings suggest shared responses of the gut microbiota to the diet across patients with [Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome] and the general population that may be relevant to other disease contexts in which inflammation, gut microbial changes, and nutrition are a common thread,” the study authors conclude.

“Long-term diets enriched in legumes, vegetables, fruits and nuts; a higher intake of plant over animal foods with a preference for low-fat fermented dairy and fish; while avoiding strong alcoholic drinks, processed high-fat meat and soft drinks, have a potential to prevent intestinal inflammatory processes via the gut microbiome.”

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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