Eating a lot of processed foods may increase the risk of chronic infections, study finds

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Experts worry about inflammation, diabetes, and other persistent infections

A new study conducted by researchers from Georgia State University has explored the link between processed foods and long-term health risks. Their work showed that consumers who eat large quantities of processed foods may be at an increased risk of developing chronic infections, such as diabetes. 

“We observed that feeding mice a Western-style diet, rather than standard rodent grain-based chow, altered the dynamics of the Citrobacter infection, reducing initial colonization and inflammation, which was surprising,” said researcher Dr. Andrew Gerwitz. “However, mice consuming the Western-style diet frequently developed persistent infection that was associated with low-grade inflammation and insulin resistance.”

Processed foods can compromise health

The researchers conducted their study on mice and fed them two different types of diets to determine how food choice can impact health outcomes. The Western-style diet was primarily highly-processed foods that contained high traces of sugars and fats and lacked fiber. By contrast, the traditional diets of mice are grain-based and nutrient dense. 

The team analyzed how the diets impacted the Citrobacter infection, which is associated with E.coli. They also looked at the mice’s gut microbiota to determine how that was impacted by diet and how the risk of infection played into all of these factors. 

The researchers learned that eating highly-processed foods greatly impacted the mice’s gut microbiota. Switching the mice to a highly-processed diet led to less diverse gut microbiota, which ultimately made them more susceptible to health risks.

The team explained that having a variety of bacteria in the gut and intestines can benefit the body in several ways, including better digestion and immune system health. Without the nutrients necessary to diversify gut bacteria, health complications were more common. 

They also found that the mice fed the Western diet were more likely to get sick when repeatedly introduced to the Citrobacter infection. Because of the relationship between processed foods and gut microbiota, the mice’s immune systems were already compromised and their intestines weren’t able to properly break down the pathogen. This lack of nutrients made them more prone to chronic infections and conditions like diabetes. 

“These studies demonstrate potential of altering gut microbiota and their metabolites by diet to impact the course and consequence of infection following exposure to a gut pathogen,” Dr. Gerwitz said. 

Moving forward, the team recommends that consumers prioritize following healthy diets to ensure optimal gut health. This can improve immune system function, intestinal health, and overall wellness. 

“We speculate that reshaping gut microbiota by nutrients that promote beneficial bacteria that out-compete pathogens may be a means of broadly promoting health,” said researcher Dr. Jun Zou. 

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