A study has found that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods is linked to a significantly higher risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
This is according to a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers from around the world and published by the BMJ, a leading peer-reviewed medical journal.
Over three million Americans have IBD, a group of inflammatory gastrointestinal conditions, with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis being the most prominent of these conditions.
Researchers have noted that IBD is more prevalent in industrialized or developed nations, and many believe that dietary factors played a role in making IBD more common in countries where it was previously rare. But data linking ultra-processed foods with IBD is very limited.
“In countries like India and China, the disease was not in existence or had very low incidence 10 or 20 years ago, and now it’s rampant,” noted Andres Hurtado-Lorenzo, vice president of translational research programs at the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.
Some examples of ultra-processed foods the researchers took into account include packaged baked goods and snacks, carbonated beverages, sugary cereals, ready meals that contain food additives and reconstituted meat and fish products that often contain high levels of fat, salt and added sugar and do not have enough fiber and vitamins.
The international team of researchers from 21 low, middle and high-income countries all over the world used detailed dietary information from 116,087 adults aged 35 to 70 who were taking part in a Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. This study examined the impact of societal influences on chronic diseases around the world
The PURE study enrolled participants in the study between 2003 and 2016, and their health was assessed at least once every three years, with an average follow-up period of 9.7 years.
The PURE researchers noted that 467 participants developed IBD – 90 with Crohn’s disease and 377 with ulcerative colitis.
After taking into account multiple other factors that could have influenced their IBD diagnosis, the researchers found that consuming five or more servings of ultra-processed foods per day increased a person’s risk of IBD by 82 percent compared to people who consumed less than one serving per day. Consuming between one to four servings of ultra-processed foods per day increased a person’s risk by 67 percent compared to less than one serving per day.
The risk of IBD also increased if a person consumed more of certain ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, refined sweetened foods, salty snacks and processed meats.
Consuming fresh foods does not increase risk of IBD
By contrast, the intake of fresh and unprocessed foods like white and red meat, dairy, starch, fruits, vegetables and legumes were not associated with a higher risk of developing IBD.
The researchers made it clear that this study is merely an observational one and it does not properly establish causality. The lack of an increased risk of developing IBD from consuming fresh and unprocessed foods suggests that it may not be the foods themselves that are the problem, but a factor in the way they are processed or ultra-processed.
“Further studies are needed to identify specific potential contributory factors among processed foods that might be responsible for the observed associations in our study,” wrote the researchers.
“Are there any biological factors that are interacting with those components in the ultra-processed food that in combination trigger IBD?” asked Hurtado-Lorenzo, who noted that it remains unclear how the chemicals in ultra-processed foods trigger the disease.
But he added that their findings “support the hypothesis that intake of ultra-processed foods could be an environmental factor that increases the risk of IBD.”