Following a Western diet high in sugar and fat could increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease, researchers have said.

A team from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Cleveland Clinic say they have found evidence to suggest that eating convenience foods and takeaways impairs the immune system which can lead to health problems.

Lead author Dr Ta-Chiang Liu, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University, said: “Inflammatory bowel disease has historically been a problem primarily in Western countries such as the US, but it’s becoming more common globally as more and more people adopt Western lifestyles.

“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 trial revolved around looking at the function of Paneth cells which are usually located in the bowel.

When they become damaged it can lead to the gut immune system becoming inflamed. Impaired Paneth cells are a key feature of inflammatory bowel disease.

The researchers used clinical data collected from 400 people to analyse the health of their Paneth cells and found a direct link between unhealthy ones and a high body mass index (BMI). The higher the BMI, the worst the cells looked.

Dr Liu said: “Obesity wasn’t the problem per se. Eating too much of a healthy diet didn’t affect the Paneth cells. It was the high-fat, high-sugar diet that was the problem.

“Whether people who habitually eat a Western diet can improve their gut immunity by changing their diet remains to be seen.”

For further understanding the researchers used obese mice in another arm of the study. Surprisingly, the Paneth cells in the animals looked normal. Healthy mice were then fed a diet high in fat or sugar and after two months they grew obese and their cells had become damaged.

Dr Liu said: “This was a short-term experiment, just eight weeks. In people, obesity doesn’t occur overnight or even in eight weeks. People have a suboptimal lifestyle for 20, 30 years before they become obese. It’s possible that if you have Western diet for so long, you cross a point of no return and your Paneth cells don’t recover even if you change your diet. We’d need to do more research before we can say whether this process is reversible in people.”

The study findings have been published in the Cell Host & Microbe Journal.

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