How the western diet is wreaking havoc on our guts
Experts say a range of factors — including how we eat — may explain the rise of IBD and other gut disorders.
By Markham Heid.
GI researchers say that the rise of IBD and other gut disorders likely stems from a mix of factors. But, to a person, they agree that the much-maligned “Western diet” likely plays a starring role.
“As soon as a country is westernized, IBD starts increasing, and I think diet is absolutely contributing to that,” says Karen Madsen, PhD, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada who studies the role of the microbiome in IBD and related diseases.
The gut is home to trillions of microbes (aka the microbiome) that break down the foods we eat. These microbes also produce metabolites that assist in digestion, immune functioning, and other aspects of GI health. Much of Madsen’s recent research has explored the impact of dietary sugar on the microbiome and the gut’s immune activity. “When you put sugar into the diet, what happens is that you feed certain bacteria,” she says. These bacteria tend to stoke inflammation while also impeding the growth of healthy, inflammation-lowering bacteria and metabolites. A Western diet packed with heavily processed foods tends to contain a lot of simple sugars. It also lacks fiber and complex carbohydrates, which are the types of foods that support healthy bacteria populations, Madsen explains. The Western diet is likewise implicated in the development of GERD and irritable bowel syndrome.
Can the damage be reversed?
That’s difficult to say. If a person’s gut problems are caused by an unhealthy diet, Madsen says that trying to cut down on processed foods and sugars could be beneficial. She also recommends eating a variety of high-fiber foods like whole fruits and vegetables. But not everyone’s microbiome is malleable. “Some people’s microbes readily adapt to change, and some don’t,” she says.
It’s possible that avoiding antibiotics, ditching unnecessary consumer chemicals, and taking other steps to safeguard one’s gut health could all be beneficial. But experts say that the complexity of the gut and its relationship to the immune system defy simple, universal remedies.
“I think that in the Western world, we’re doing things to our bodies early in life — and also throughout life — that reduce the diversity and complexity of the microbiome,” Kaplan says. “Patients ask me, ‘What can I do?’ And it’s very hard to give satisfying advice.”