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Cut the Crap – How Junk Food Affects Your Gut

Shannon Harvey

My three-year-old son had been offered junk food for what seemed like the millionth time in just a few days, and was looking at me with pleading eyes as if to say “pleeeeease Mum!?” The person offering him the glossy-on-the-outside, but empty-on-the-inside snack was doing it because they thought they were being nice. They wanted to make their time together special and (probably unconsciously) thought that the way to go about it was to give him a “treat.” The problem is that it wasn’t special, or a treat. It was crap. The ingredients on the label read more like a chemistry experiment than a food recipe.

I’m tired of always having to be the fun police, telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat, so I kept silent and let my son eat the candy. But as I watched him devour his “something special,” I started stewing. My problem wasn’t the idea of a one-time treat. My problem was that junk food is offered to my son with regularity. Half of the time these well-meaning friends and relatives don’t even realise they’re giving him junk.

An ever-increasing body of evidence shows that chronic disease is on the rise. Two years ago, when I released my film The Connection: Mind Your Body, the World Health Organisation cited that one in two people will get a chronic disease such as diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. Now that statistic is two in three. In the US, 43 percent of kids have a chronic health condition[1]. Coming from the perspective of being a health journalist who was one of the unlucky ones (diagnosed with autoimmune disease at 24-years-old), I don’t want my kids to follow in my footsteps.

At the same time, we now have irrefutable evidence showing that what we eat has a big role to play in rise of disease. It’s not the only reason we’re getting sick, but it’s definitely one of the reasons. For example, factors related to poor nutrition are estimated to account for more than one third of cancer deaths.

Increasingly, scientists are starting to partly explain the connection between diet and disease by looking at gut bacteria, which play a crucial role in harvesting energy from our food, protecting us against infections, training our immune system, providing nutrition to cells, influencing the size of our waistline, affecting our resilience to stress, and even influencing our mood and behaviour. Disruptions to the balance of this gut “wildlife” are associated with a range of chronic diseases and it’s the people who lack diversity who seem to be vulnerable to poor health.

It is ironic that scientists are beginning to understand the importance of the microbiome just as modern diets and lifestyles are ravaging it. It turns out that our friendly microbes don’t like substances like the emulsifiers, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners found in processed foods. These artificial substances can kill off the good bugs.

When researchers at Université Catholique de Louvain in Brussels fed a junk-food diet to mice, they observed not only that the community of microbes in the mouse guts changed, but that the diet made the animals’ gut barriers notably more permeable, allowing toxins to leak into the bloodstream. This constant leakage caused a low-grade inflammation that eventually led to metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms that increases the risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

Another fascinating study saw rural South Africans switch their usual low-fat, fibre-rich diet that included corn fritters, mango slices, bean soup, and fish tacos with a high-fat, high-protein diet of sausages, hash browns, burgers, and fries. In just two weeks, their gut microbes were shown to begin producing more secondary bile acids, which have been linked to increased cancer risk.

If you look at a typically Western diet, many of us are eating excessive amounts of cheap, nutritionally-deficient, low-quality food. Just over one-third of American children and adolescents eat fast food every day. Sure it may taste good, but the “everything in moderation” attitude comes unstuck when you consider that 2016 research, done on mice by researchers at the University of New South Wales, demonstrated that eating a poor diet that includes things like meat pies, cakes, and cookies even three days a week can change the balance of bacteria and lead to weight gain and poor health.

All this research has led me to encourage my family to eat a diet rich in whole foods that help diverse gut bugs to flourish. We eat variety of plants and “trade-up” so that our food packs a more powerful nutritional punch. For example we try to eat the whole fruit, rather than drinking its juice, we choose whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta, and brown rice instead of white rice. My three-year-old calls this “feeding his bugs.”

We also keep junk foods such as cookies, candy, processed and sugary chocolate, crisps, and soda out of our house. After recently chatting to a world leading expert on designing our environment for optimum health, (check out the podcast about making healthy eating effortless here), on the occasion that sweets do make their way into our home, I now store them in a cupboard in the laundry so that they aren’t temptingly easy to get to. However, even with all our efforts at home to educate and make healthy eating fun, I’d say my son still eats junk foods at least four days a week. How can I compete with shiny packaging with fun cartoon characters and the electrifying taste of sugary snacks?

As I sat there watching my son eating the candy he’d been offered on the weekend (it was 3pm and the serving size was enormous), I knew that I was going to have a hard time getting him to eat his healthy dinner later that night. I felt like the world was against me and I felt like the grinch for wanting to say “no.”

I decided to canvas some of my fellow parents on Facebook to see what others are doing, and my favourite response came from my friends Sarah and Tim who say to their kids “I have no problem with you eating that, it’s your insides that will get rotten, not mine… no, no, please go ahead and eat it, but remember, when your insides rot, your outsides will too!”

And so, dear reader, I’d love to know your thoughts too. What more can I do to stand up for my son’s gut bugs?

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