Whether there’s a pandemic going on or not, taking care of your immune system is essential for good health. Let’s be honest, the availability of fast food and packaged edibles has made us dependent on them. But choosing these foods carefully is important, since it can have drastic effects on your immune system.
Scientists have named the popular fast and processed food diet as the “western diet.” And this diet has been associated with a lot of health risks, including heart disease and diabetes. But you probably knew that. What you might not have known is how it affects the gut microbiome. A review done by the National Institutes of Health showed that a large number of calories in these foods lead to reduced control of infection by the body and an increased risk for allergic diseases. And that is not something you want in an environment that is a global pandemic.
What are ultra-processed foods and how do they affect our bodies?
The culprit of this whole mess is the ultra-processed foods, but a lot of us don't even know what they even are. So let’s start by dissecting them. They weren’t even available when your great-great-grandmother was around, so they’re pretty recent, and the effect they’re having is nothing but bad. When we say ultra-processed foods, think of frozen chicken nuggets at McDonald’s, every other soda, sports drink, and even the intricately named drinks at Starbucks.
These foods are not harvested or anything, they’re created in factories and pumped full of chemicals, additives for color, flavor, texture, and shelf life. All this processing increases the flavor, but also increases the caloric density of the food. Moreover, it strips the foods of essential fiber, vitamins, and nutrients.
By eating this junk, you’re not just harming your own body. The authors of the study pointed out that poor dietary choices actually get “encoded” into the DNA and into the gut microbiome. What does that mean? It means that these careless habits of ours are permanently changing the balance of bacteria in our bodies. This in turn weakens the immune system. Moreover, these changes can be transferred to your offspring! According to Dr. Ian Myles, our bodies are a sort of mini-ecosystem, so a tiny change in the bacteria levels can lead to a tragic domino effect on our health.
The "junk" in junk food
Let’s talk about what each component of processed foods does to your body.
Salt - The first one is salt. Chips, frozen dinners, fast food are all extremely high in salt. Such high amounts of salt impairs your body’s immune response. All because so much salt triggers inflammation. A diet with 12 grams of salt can lead to higher levels of white blood cells called monocytes and inflammatory markers. It can also cause lower anti-inflammatory protein IL-10 which usually indicates an excessive immune response.
Other than higher levels of WBCs, it inhibits normal immune function, suppresses the anti-inflammatory response, and worst of all alters gut bacteria. Moreover, eating so much salt can worsen already existing autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. So maybe lay off the lays for a while.
In fact, researchers at the University of Bonn found out that the immune system reacts to high fat and high-calorie foods just as it reacts to harmful bacteria. The point is, your body thinks the junk food you eat is literally an infection. Over time, your immune system becomes more and more aggressive. In the study, mice were given normal low-fat diets and the westerns diet, which contains high fats, sugars, and low fiber. When the subjects were put back on their normal diet, their inflammation went down. But don’t celebrate too soon, because the genetic reprogramming of their immune cells stayed exactly the same! Dr. Eicke Latz, director of the Institute for Innate Immunity at the university, said that recently it’s been discovered that the immune system has a form of memory. After an infection, the body and its defense system remain in a sort of alert state in case it has to react quickly to a new attack.
This phenomenon is known as innate immune training, which was triggered by an unhealthy diet and not a bacterium in this experiment. These were just mice. Imagine how complex the effects would be on us, humans! Moreover, the average life expectancy is continuously decreasing in some western countries where this diet has become normal and even ordinary.
Excess fats - It’s not just packaged food, but also fried foods. Other than being highly saturated in excessive amounts of oil, fried foods are high in something called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These molecules are formed when sugars react with fat or protein at a very high temperature. So basically they’re made when you fry something.
If there are too many AGEs in your body, it can lead to an age-old condition, inflammation, and even cellular damage. As for their effect on the immune system? Quite obviously it’s not positive. Other than promoting inflammation, it depletes the body’s antioxidant mechanisms and absolutely ruins your gut bacteria. If you thought that was all, you’d be very wrong. Researchers believe that a diet high in AGEs can increase your susceptibility to diseases like malaria, while also increasing your risk for conditions such as metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, and heart disease. French fries don’t look so good right now, do they?
Emulsifiers - Have you heard of emulsifiers? If you haven’t, they’re the ingredients added to processed foods like ice cream and peanut butter to improve their texture and extend their shelf life. But that’s not all they do. They also dramatically increase gut inflammation, which then gives the risk of developing chronic conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease a huge boost.
In a study done by the Georgia State University, researchers used lab equipment to simulate the real human gut. They used a bunch of pumps and containers and bacteria almost exactly like ours to make the gut human-like. Then, the scientists added two emulsifiers called carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 (P80) to the simulated gut. And what did they find? Obviously something not too good. As we mentioned before, these additives interfere with the gut bacteria but inflaming the intestines and literally give disease an open door to enter. And the emulsifiers mentioned did exactly that.
The worst part is spotting emulsifiers and additives at the back of the ingredient list is incredibly hard since they all go by different names. So the only way left is to avoid junk food completely. It’s hard, but it can be done with the right motivation and eating habits.
Researchers have done extensive studies on how important gut bacteria are. More so, a diversity of gut bacteria is essential to good gut health. When researchers analyzed stool samples from people that lived far away from cities and were more involved in the hunter-gatherer cultures where the cursed ultra-processed foods were not as common, they found something interesting. When you consider the samples from people in industrialized areas, there is a clear pattern. The further away people are from these factory-made foods, the more diverse their gut microbiome is.
And this isn’t the first time diversity of the gut microbiome was deemed important. When researchers analyzed DNA of calcified dental plaque from the oral cavities of humans from Neolithic and medieval times, their DNA showed much more diversity than the unfortunate post-industrial modern human. Who would have thought eating too many potato chips could lead to a drastic change in the DNA of modern humans?!
As our intake of carbohydrates changed and increased, the ecosystem of the mouth and the gut went into a worse condition. A lot of these good bacteria tend to get lost when we have diets with highly processed foods. Another theory was stated in the review paper on the effects of the western diet on the microbiome. It explained that the sugars in the devil ultra-processed foods fed the harmful bacteria in the gut, causing them to flourish instead of the ones that actually were good for our tummy.
In conclusion, if you’re well-versed in the effects just a pack of chips can have on our DNA and the ecosystems of the body, you should be very mindful of what you eat. Moreover, teach your children to stay away from foods that are now available easier than getting an actually healthy meal. These habits will take them a long way. And implementing a good diet also means that your offspring will have a better shot at a healthy lifestyle. So when you take care of yourself, you’re also taking care of the children of the future! Start small by switching out sodas for fresh juices or even better filtered water and slowly integrate these habits into your lifestyle instead of getting on a fad diet!
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