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Study: Eating Ultra-Processed Foods May Increase Your IBD Risk

Ultra-processed foods like pizza and chicken wings.

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Key Takeaways

  • New research finds that eating ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
  • Compared with eating less than one serving of ultra-processed food per day, the researchers found that people who ate five or more servings per day were at an 82% higher risk of IBD.
  • To mitigate this risk, supporting your gut health is key.

It's no secret that ultra-processed foods like sugary snacks and candy aren't the best addition to a healthy diet. But, according to new research, eating larger amounts of ultra-processed food isn't just a bad habit. It may also put you at a greater risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 

The researchers evaluated dietary information and diagnoses of IBD in more than 116,000 subjects, following up for an average of 9 years.

What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a blanket term for several conditions that cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC) are two specific conditions that fall under the IBD umbrella. People with IBD may experience persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue, although symptoms vary from person to person.

Compared with eating less than one serving of ultra-processed food per day, the researchers found that people who ate five or more servings per day were at an 82% higher risk of IBD. People who had one to four servings per day had a 67% increased risk.

These results were similar regardless of whether the ultra-processed food was soft drinks, refined sweetened foods, salty snacks, or processed meat.

In contrast, eating white meat, unprocessed red meat, dairy, starch, fruit, vegetables, and legumes was not associated with IBD risk. Eating more sodium did not appear to increase participants' risk either.

Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients (such as emulsifiers and detergents) that can negatively affect our gut microbiome and barrier. Many of these foods have been modified from their natural state and have added ingredients that enhance their shelf-life, stability, and taste. These highly processed foods have little nutritional value compared to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 

Based on the results, the researchers question whether it is a person's food choices or the way that the food is processed that actually influences IBD risk.

For example, fresh and unprocessed meat does not appear to play a role in an increased risk of IBD, but processed meat may. Another example would be eating foods like baked potatoes compared to French fries. 

The July study was published in the British Medical Journal.

Can Your Diet Increase Your IBD Risk?

Katrina Cox, RDN, a registered dietitian specializing in gut health, tells Verywell that while the study's results are exciting, they are not surprising. 

Cox says that IBD “is thought to derive from not only genetics but also the immune system and the microbiome, both of which are very related."

According to Cox, eating highly processed foods "has been associated with dysbiosis (imbalance of good and bad gut bacteria)." That dysbiosis "leads to gut inflammation and permeability which can also, in turn, affect the immune system's function," she adds.

Your diet can alter your microbiome, which means that how and what you eat could potentially increase or reduce your risk of developing IBD—especially if you are genetically predisposed.

Previous studies have shown that certain dietary factors, such as eating high amounts of certain fats, may increase a person's risk of developing IBD. A typical "Western-style diet" (which generally includes many ultra-processed foods) has also been associated with increased IBD risk.

What This Means For You

To reduce your risk of developing IBD, limiting processed foods from your diet is a good place to start. Try introducing more fruits, vegetables, fermented foods, and high-antioxidant herbs into your routine instead.

How to Support Your Gut Health

While genetics play a role in your risk for conditions like IBD, they are not the only factor that determines whether you'll develop it.

Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN, HHC, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Verywell that "there’s that saying that genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger."

Foroutan says that if you have a genetic predisposition to IBD, "trigger pullers" for the condition include:

  • Stress
  • Poor sleep
  • Chronic nutrient insufficiency
  • Inadequate fiber
  • Highly processed foods
  • Not enough antioxidants from food
  • Too much sugar
  • An unbalanced gut microbiome

Having a balanced gut microbiome appears to be especially valuable. Luckily, Cox says that there are several ways that you can support your gut bacteria.

Along with limiting ultra-processed foods, Cox says that you can improve your gut microbiome by consuming prebiotics and "eating the rainbow," which is a wide variety of colorful produce, that "will provide the good bacteria and the proper fuel to thrive."

Fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, yogurt, tempeh, and kombucha may also help. Cox says that many fermented foods “promote beneficial strains of bacteria and can decrease the quantities of disease forming bacteria.”

Foroutan suggests that people "experiment with using ghee for cooking, which is a natural source of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that fuels intestinal cells."

High-antioxidant herbs, like garlic, onion, leeks, and oregano, can also help balance gut microbes. Foroutan says they act "as both an antimicrobial/anti-fungal for the unfriendly microbes and a prebiotic source of food for the good microbes."

In addition to your diet, there are also other ways to support your gut health—many of which also support your overall physical and mental wellbeing.

Foroutan says that "stress relief and optimizing sleep are also important environmental factors that can help reduce the risk for many diseases, including IBD."

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Updated March 22, 2018.

  3. Loddo I, Romano C. Inflammatory bowel disease: genetics, epigenetics, and pathogenesis. Frontiers in Immunology. 2015;6. doi.  10.3389/fimmu.2015.00551. Published November, 2015.

  4. Hou JK, Abraham B, El-Serag H. Dietary intake and risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease: a systematic review of the literature. American Journal of Gastroenterol.ogy 2011 Apr;106(4):563-73. doi:10.1038/ajg.2011.44