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Inflammatory bowel disease linked to unhealthy foods

French fries
Photo by Emmy Smith on Unsplash
The study found that individuals with the condition tend to eat junk food more frequently and in greater quantities.

Americans with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are more likely to eat foods typically labeled as junk food, such as French fries and soft drinks, than people without the condition, according to a study published this week in the journal PLOS One.

Of course, plenty of Americans without IBD also eat junk food, but this study found that individuals with the condition tend to eat unhealthy foods more frequently and in greater quantities.

The authors of the study hope their findings will lead to more research — and a better understanding — regarding the potential role that diet plays in the development of IBD.

What it is — and isn’t

IBD is a broad term that encompasses several chronic inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract. The two most common are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. IBD symptoms, which include fatigue, abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea and weight loss, can be debilitating. (Despite their symptoms being similar, irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease are not included under the IBD umbrella, although IBD is more common among people with celiac disease than among the general population.)

About 3 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with IBD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The onset of the condition tends to occur in early adulthood. It then persists throughout life.

Inflammatory bowel disease is a term for two conditions (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) that are characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
Inflammatory bowel disease is a term for two conditions (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) that are characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
The causes of IBD are unknown, although genetics appears to play a role in some cases. Research has also pointed to diet as a possible risk factor. Certain foods may lead to IBD by altering the microbiome (the community of microorganisms) in the gut, for example, or by releasing antigens that trigger an inflammatory response.

Most studies that have looked at the relationship between diet and IBD have tended to be small, however, and not necessarily representative of the U.S. population.

Study details

For the current study, researchers at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University analyzed data from a large nationally representative group of Americans — more than 33,000 adults aged 18 to 85 who took part in the annual National Health Interview Survey in 2015. The survey asked the participants how often they consumed 26 different foods during the previous month. That list of foods included both healthful ones (such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables) and unhealthful ones (such as French fries, soda, candy, and processed meats).

Among the survey’s participants, 1.28 percent (about 425 people) had been diagnosed with IBD. When the researchers compared their dietary choices with those made by people without the condition, they found some differences.

Certain foods were more likely to be consumed by people with IBD than by those without it, particularly French fries and sports and energy drinks. Specifically, the odds of having IBD were about one-and-a-half times higher among the survey takers who said they had consumed one or both of those two foods during the previous month than among those who said they hadn’t.

People with IBD were also more likely to consume higher-than-average amounts of cheese, cookies and soda than those without the condition.

On the other hand, people without IBD were more likely than those with the condition to drink milk and 100 percent fruit juice (as opposed to fruit “drinks”). Interestingly, they were also more likely to say they snacked on popcorn.

In general, the people with IBD tended to be bigger consumers of junk food than those who were IBD-free.

Plenty of caveats

The study has several important limitations. Most notably, it’s observational, so it can’t prove any direct connection between dietary choices and IBD. Also, it relied on people self-reporting the foods they had eaten during the previous month. Such recollections can be faulty.

Furthermore the study could not determine if people had changed their dietary habits after being diagnosed with IBD.

Still, the study’s authors note that other research has also pointed to the “intake of foods typically perceived as unhealthy as a contributing trait of IBD prevalence in the U.S.”

It’s important to figure out the risk posed by certain foods for the development of IBD, they add, so that susceptibility to the disease might be reduced.

FMI: You can read the study in full on the PLOS One website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/08/2020 - 10:57 am.

    I would want to know how they diagnosed or confirmed the IBD diagnosis?

    Also, I have a hard time believing that out of 33,000 Americans, only 425 are eating french fries other junk food once a month. That runs contrary to everything we know about American eating habits. Everywhere else we’re finding high levels of obesity, hypertension, type II diabetes, etc. etc. because of the poor American diet. The incidence of IBD in the population looks about right, but the french fry connection could be iffy.

    On the other hand, we call it junk food for a reason and I don’t think any studies have found that it’s actually good for anyone.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 05/08/2020 - 12:10 pm.

    As a child, I loved hamburgers and french fries, but they were by no means my typical fare. Even if we “ate out,” we had regular meals, not burgers and fries. I’m thankful that I grew up in a home where my father was an expert gardener and my mother a cook who put reasonably well-rounded meals on the table.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/08/2020 - 12:48 pm.

    As a long term survivor of crohns disease – I found this study interesting. For close to 40 years I have read countless “studies” trying to decipher the cause and conditions that activate crohns disease. I have a vested interest in this subject.

    In fact, most “health food” options are those that activate and are harmful to those who suffer from Crohns disease.

    Hopefully – soon- “science” will be able to give some real answers for those who suffer from this terrible disease. Maybe this survey and study could contribute.

  4. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 05/09/2020 - 06:46 am.

    This study deserves more than the usual warning that correlation doesn’t imply causation. That’s always true—A and B appearing in association doesn’t imply that A causes B. And in particular, it is always possible that the causation might be in the reverse direction: B might be causing A. But when there is specific reason to *expect* B to cause A, then it is especially inappropriate to suggest that A might be causing B. And there is every reason to expect IBD to cause differences in diet. The clearest example of that would be this sentence: “Interestingly, [people without IBD] were also more likely to say they snacked on popcorn.” No, that isn’t interesting at all, it is utterly unsurprising. All it takes is a quick glance at the dietary recommendations given to IBD patients and you’ll see popcorn is a top no-no, at least during flare ups.

  5. Submitted by Be Joeshmoe on 05/09/2020 - 01:37 pm.

    Obviously, this doesn’t mean IBD is caused by those foods, as your headline might imply, but it could certainly mean that it exacerbates cravings for those foods. Perhaps because they are the easiest ones to derive energy from, the easiest and fastest to digest. Are there any studies that don’t have an agenda?

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