Many studies have shown that the Western diet is associated with a higher risk of obesity, cancer and heart problems.  A new study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Cleveland Clinic has found that eating a Western diet also damages your gut immune system and can increase your risk of inflammatory bowel disease and infection.

The typical Western diet consumed in the U.S. and other Western countries includes high intakes of red meat, processed and pre-packaged foods, candy and sweets, fried foods, high fat dairy products, industrially raised animal products and eggs, refined grains, corn and high fructose corn syrup, and sugar-sweetened drinks.  It is low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed animal products, fish, nuts, and seeds.  Typically, 40 percent of the calories in the Western diet come from fat or sugar.

Paneth cells are the immune cells in your gut that keep inflammation in check.  If these cells aren’t working properly, your gut becomes excessively prone to inflammation, putting you at risk of inflammatory bowel disease.  There is also less control over microbes that cause infection and disease.  The study, which was conducted in mice as well as examining data from 400 people, showed that a diet high in sugar and fat causes damage to the Paneth cells.  According to Ta-Chiang Liu, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University, “inflammatory bowel disease has historically been a problem in Western countries such as the U.S., but it’s becoming more common globally as more and more people adopt Western lifestyles”.  He also says, “our research showed that long-term consumption of a Western-style diet high in fat and sugar impairs the function of immune cells in the gut in ways that could promote inflammatory bowel disease or increase the risk of intestinal infections”.

The researchers found that when they fed healthy mice a typical Western diet for two months, they became obese, and their Paneth cells looked much worse.  Once they were put back on a healthy diet for four weeks, their Paneth cells became normal again.  They also found that a high body mass index (BMI) in people was associated with abnormal and unhealthy Paneth cells, and the higher the BMI, the worse the Paneth cells were.  Although it would be necessary to do more research on longer term experiments to confirm this, it appears that by changing from a high-fat, high-sugar diet to a healthy diet, it may be possible to reverse the negative effects of the Western diet.

Instead of eating a harmful Western diet, do the opposite and adopt a lifestyle that includes mostly whole, plant-based foods.  This includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.  By avoiding the processed and junk foods, you’ll be eliminating all that added sugar and fat, and you’ll instead benefit from the abundance of nutrients and fiber in the plants.  Instead of saturated fats from meats, get your healthy fats from foods like olive oil, avocados, and oily fish.  Stay hydrated with water and tea instead of sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages.

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