Processed foods. The temptation to eat them may be strong, since they are often ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat—quick and easy to get on the table.
But you’ll want to keep that temptation in check not only because past studies have reported that consuming processed foods can increase the risk of heart disease, colorectal disease and weight gain, but also because a newer study published in the Autoimmunity Reviews suggests that eating processed foods might weaken the intestines in ways that may raise the risk for autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune hepatitis and more.
The term “processed foods” seems pretty self-explanatory, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines processed foods as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”
And there are a slew of processed foods on the market—and people are buying and consuming them with gusto. In fact, a nationwide analysis of U.S. grocery purchases (from 2000 to 2012) published in 2015 showed that highly processed foods made up more than 60 percent of the calories in foods purchased. That’s “highly processed foods” alone, such as sodas, desserts, candy and cookies, but doesn’t include foods that are categorized as “minimally processed” (such as fruit canned in syrups or salted nuts) or “basically processed” (such as sugar, flour and oil). When you add those in, then the amounts are over-the-top.
What occurs during autoimmune disease is that the immune system turns on itself, attacking healthy cells in the body because it mistakes those healthy cells for foreign invaders. This, in turn, can lead to body tissue destruction as well as abnormal organ function and growth.
The research team explained that many autoimmune diseases are a result of “tight junctions” in the intestines which become dysfunctional. Tight junctions are sealants between epithelial cells which protect the lining of the GI tract called the mucosa. When tight junctions function normally, they protect the immune system from bad bacteria and other unwanted foreign invaders. (As a reminder, up to 80 percent of your immune system is housed in the gut, so it makes sense that what adversely affects the gut can also disrupt immunity.)
When tight junctions have become compromised, however, toxins can then enter the bloodstream and increase the risk of developing autoimmune diseases. (Having damaged tight junctions is also frequently referred to as “leaky gut.”)
Professor Lerner made this comment, “Control and enforcement agencies such as the FDA stringently supervise the pharmaceutical industry, but the food additive market remains unsupervised enough. We hope this study and similar studies increase awareness about the dangers inherent in industrial food additives, and raise awareness about the need for control over them.”
And remember: to avoid processed foods, choose fresh organic foods instead and build your diet around them.
—adapted from Extraordinary Health newsletter, February 3, 2016