This latest healthy study, which looked at the impact of a traditional Western diet, was conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine.

By Kelly Vaughan
May 19, 2021
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Health experts have said for years that we should all make a concerted effort to cut back on dairy, sugar, alcohol, and other fatty foods. Why? Because eating too much of these types of foods can cause inflammation as well as lead to obesity and heart disease. A new study, which examined diet in both mice and humans, has found that eating high amounts of sugar and fat can cause damage to Paneth cells, which are the immune cells found in the gut that help to keep inflammation in check. When Paneth cells do not function properly, individuals may be at a heightened risk of inflammatory bowel disease.

cheeseburger with fries and milkshake on table
Credit: Kyle Monk / Getty Images

"Inflammatory bowel disease has historically been a problem primarily in Western countries such as the U.S., but it's becoming more common globally as more and more people adopt Western lifestyles," said lead author Ta-Chiang Liu, MD, PhD, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University. "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."

One group that is severely affected by dysfunctional Paneth cells is those who suffer from Crohn's Disease, which is a type of inflammatory bowel disease characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea, anemia, and fatigue.

In the study, researchers fed normal mice a diet in which 40 percent of the calories came from fat or sugar, which is typical of a Western diet. After two months, the mice had become obese and their Paneth cells looked much worse. "Obesity wasn't the problem per se," Liu said. "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." Once the mice were placed on a healthy diet for four weeks, their Paneth cells returned to normal, which indicates that you may be able to reverse the negative effects of an unhealthy diet.

"This was a short-term experiment," Liu said. "In people, obesity doesn't occur overnight or even in eight weeks. People have a suboptimal lifestyle for 20 or 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."

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