Ultra-Processed Foods May Increase the Risk of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

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Experts say careful shopping and better preparation of meals can reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet. Alex Potemkin/Getty Images
  • Researchers say a regular diet that includes ultra-processed foods increases your risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
  • They say foods such as red meat and salty snacks themselves don’t necessarily increase the risk. Rather, it’s the way the foods are processed.
  • Experts say you can reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet by purchasing products with fewer ingredients and by preparing these foods in your kitchen where you don’t use as many additives or preservatives.

Eating ultra-processed foods heightens your risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

That’s the core finding from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study published this week in .

An international team of researchers drew on detailed dietary information from 116,087 adults ages 35 to 70 living in 21 low, middle, and high income countries.

The study took place from 2003 and 2016 with self-reported assessments being completed at least every 3 years.

Over an average follow-up of nearly 10 years, 467 participants developed IBD (377 with ulcerative colitis and 90 with Crohn’s disease).

Other significant findings:

  • an 82 percent increased risk of IBD with five or more servings of ultra-processed food per day
  • a 67 percent increased risk of IBD with one to four servings of ultra-processed food per day

The results were consistent for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. However, as the researchers noted, results relied on self-reported diagnoses and didn’t account for dietary changes over time.

Foods associated with digestive problems include:

  • soft drinks
  • refined sweetened foods
  • salty snacks
  • processed meat

The associated with IBD include:

  • persistent diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • rectal bleeding or bloody stools
  • weight loss
  • fatigue

White and red meat, dairy, starch, fruit, vegetables, and legumes (such as peas, beans, and lentils) were not directly associated with an increased risk of IBD.

Therefore, researchers said, it might not be the food itself that increases this risk but rather the way the food is processed.

What this research means

Regardless of the study limitations and the need for more research, nutrition experts say this isn’t the only time ultra-processed or processed foods have been linked to gut issues.

“We’ve seen similar data in the past 18 months show similar results,” said , MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the best-selling author of “Skinny Liver: A Proven Program to Prevent and Reverse the New Silent Epidemic — Fatty Liver Disease.”

“Ultra-processed foods are void of nutrients, full of additives, and impact the brain in such a way that the individual consuming them may find it hard to control portions,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline. “There’s a reason why we can’t put a bag of potato chips down but can easily stop eating broccoli after one serving.”

supports that eating a diet higher in processed foods means consuming more calories on average when compared with eating fewer processed foods.

Diets high in processed foods have also been associated with higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and .

The explains there are different levels of processed foods to watch for in your diet. It urges people to choose items closer to the minimally processed side of the spectrum more often.

  • Minimally processed foods: These foods are often simply preprepared for convenience. Examples include bagged spinach, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts.
  • Foods processed at their peak: They lock in nutritional quality and freshness. Examples include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned fish.
  • Foods with ingredients added: Examples include sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives (i.e., jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt, and cake mixes).
  • Heavily processed foods: These include ready-to-eat foods, such as crackers, granola, and deli meat.
  • Ultra-processed foods: They’re often pre-made meals, such as frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

If you find ultra-processed foods are a big component of your daily diet, experts say to be patient as you shift your default eating habits to whole, nutrient-dense choices.

Here are some tips from Kirkpatrick on how to reduce your intake of processed foods:

  • The fewer ingredients, the less processed: Opt for whole foods with minimal ingredients.
  • Recreate your faves: Find your favorite ultra-processed food and recreate it in your kitchen. Avoid including additives and preservatives.
  • Limit quick-cook foods: Keep these foods to no more than one serving a week.
  • Focus on cooking more: Make your meals more often, rather than having a company deliver or prepare your meals.