By Dr. Mercola
If you could make one change in your life that would lower your risk of chronic disease, help you lose weight, and make you feel happier and more energized, would you do it?
The one change I'm referring to is cutting back on processed foods. It's widely known that refined junk foods aren't good for your body as they're packed with sugar (including fructose), synthetic and rancid fats, preservatives, genetically modified (GM) ingredients, additives, and more.
Lesser known, yet equally important (if not more so), is the role of poor diet on inflammation and gut health – two factors that are intricately involved in virtually every aspect of your health.
In short, nearly all processed foods are the epitome of what you shouldn't be putting in your body. The research against processed foods is hard to deny, or ignore, any longer, especially in light of a new study highlighting processed foods' detrimental effect on your immune system and gut health (and that of future generations).
Eating Your Way to an Early Death…
In a recent review published in the Nutrition Journal,1 Dr. Ian Myle of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases explained that our modern-day Westernized diet is setting the stage for immune-mediated diseases:2
"While today's modern diet may provide beneficial protection from micro- and macronutrient deficiencies, our over abundance of calories and the macronutrients that compose our diet may all lead to increased inflammation, reduced control of infection, increased rates of cancer, and increased risk for allergic and auto-inflammatory disease."
It's important to realize that dietary components can either trigger or prevent inflammation from taking root in your body. Chronic inflammation, meanwhile, is involved in diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and much more.
Regarding your diet, for example, whereas synthetic trans fats and sugar, particularly fructose, will increase inflammation, eating healthy fats such as animal-based omega-3 fats found in krill oil, or the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), will help to reduce them.
But this is only one mechanism by which processed foods damage your health. When you eat processed foods, you may be triggering the release of powerful antibodies meant to fight off foreign invaders, which can actually cause collateral damage to your body's cells.
In fact, eating a diet rich in processed foods and junk foods can cause an ongoing mistaken internal attack on very necessary components of your digestive system.3 Everyone is affected differently by this constant internal antibody attack, otherwise, we'd all have autoimmune diseases.
But it is known that macrophages, one of the more powerful tools your immune system uses to fight foreign invaders, can also do wide-ranging damage to your body's tissues.4 The Nutrition Journal review focused on several others as well, including:5
- Simple sugars increase inflammatory markers in your blood while the "complex carbohydrate fiber (but not starches), such as that found in fruits and vegetable, appear to reduce inflammation"
- Another contributor to modern diet-induced immune dysfunction may be the increased consumption of omega-6 fats (found in vegetable oils) in lieu of omega-3 fats
- Recent animal and cell-culture models have found that elements in gluten may stimulate inflammation and disrupt your immune system
- In animal models, the combination of pesticide-producing GM corn and pesticide-resistant GM soy led to increased rates of severe stomach inflammation
- The over-abundance of many processed and biologically incompatible foods in the typical Western diet simultaneously enhance inflammation while muting your immune system's ability to respond to and ultimately control infections
What You Eat Can Make or Break Your Gut Health
Nearly 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms compose your body's microflora, and advancing science has made it quite clear that these organisms play a major role in your health, both mental and physical. For example, beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, have been shown to:
- Counteract inflammation and control the growth of disease-causing bacteria
- Produce vitamins, absorb minerals, and eliminate toxins
- Control asthma and reduce risk of allergies
- Benefit your mood and mental health
- Normalize your weight
This is why I recommend a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods along with cultured or fermented foods. If, for whatever reason, you are not consuming fermented foods at least a few times a week, it's wise to consider supplementation with a high-quality probiotic supplement.
When you eat too many grains, sugars, and processed foods, these foods serve as "fertilizer" for pathogenic microorganisms and yeast, causing them to rapidly multiply. One of the best things you can do for your health, including your digestive health, is eliminate sugars and processed foods as much as possible.
In fact, millions of people currently suffer from yeast overgrowth and a host of other maladies related to an improper balance of mircoorganisms in your intestines. And most conventional doctors will not be able to identify the cause of your symptoms if you suffer from such an imbalance. As explained in the Nutrition Journal:6
"The notion that diet, stress, and environment can, for better or worse, imprint upon the bowel has been around since the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. However, only recent focus and technologic advances have allowed accurate elucidation of the mechanisms by which our lifestyle impacts our microbiome and leads to dysbiosis.
In the gut (and on the skin), there is an optimal, albeit not yet fully elucidated, balance of bacterial species. Some strains of bacteria are needed to digest dietary fibers while others produce valuable nutrients like vitamin K.
Beneficial bacteria aide their hosts by occupying space and/or modifying the microenvironment in ways that prevent harmful bacteria from gaining a foothold. More importantly, the commensal flora provides a type of training to the immune system.
Like a sparring partner in boxing, the immune system's interactions with the normal commensal flora provide an education that is indispensable when a pathogenic opponent is encountered.
…Just as loss of honeybees from orchards or addition of aninvasive species to a lake creates significant harm for the surrounding biosphere, so too it appears that small shifts in our microbiome caused by today's unhealthy diets can reverberate through human health."
Planning to Have a Baby? What You Eat Now Impacts Your Baby Later (Moms and Dads)
One of the most striking aspects of your gut health is its power to influence not only your health but also that of your children and grandchildren. Poor dietary choices can actually become encoded into the gene expression patterns (epigenome) of your DNA and your gut microbiome, leading to permanent changes in the balance of bacteria in your body – changes that may be passed onto your children.7
As noted in the Nutrition Journal,8 a mother's diet may shape her child's taste preferences in utero, skewing them toward vegetables or sweets, for instance. There's also evidence that children inherit their microbiome from their mother, and part of this may be "seeded into the unborn fetus while still in the womb."
If a mother has an imbalance of bacteria, she will pass this imbalance onto her child and "thus fails to present the ideal commensals for a proper immune education during her child's most critical developmental window… This developmental dysbiosis leaves the offspring's immune system poorly trained to fight off infections and encourages autoimmune and allergic diseases," Dr. Myles noted.
Even a father's diet plays a role in the child's future health, as "paternal epigenetics related to methylation of DNA and histones can also be inherited by the offspring and could alter early development of the immune system." As Dr. Myles explained:9 "Since the information encoded upon DNA is passed from parent-to-child and even potentially from parent-to-grandchild, cells that learn bad habits like ignoring signs of infection or over-reacting to antigens could combine with microbiome shifts to further worsen a child's immunologic development."
Fermented Foods Are Your Friend
Now that you're aware of the risks of processed foods, and the importance of re-seeding your gut with beneficial organisms, you're probably wondering what, exactly, to do about it. The first step is eliminating as many processed foods as possible, in favor of whole, unprocessed foods like organic grass-fed meat, raw grass-fed dairy, cage-free organic eggs, organic produce, nuts, seeds, and healthful fats (like coconut oil). The next step is to feast on fermented foods regularly. Fermented foods are the best route to optimal digestive health, as long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions.
Fermented vegetables are an excellent way to supply beneficial bacteria back into your gut, and, unlike some other fermented foods, they tend to be palatable, if not downright delicious, to most people. As an added bonus, they can also be a great source of vitamin K2 if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture.
We had samples of high-quality, fermented organic vegetables made with our specific starter culture tested, and a typical serving (about two to three ounces) contained not only 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, but it also had 500 mcg of vitamin K2, which we now know is a vital co-nutrient to both vitamin D and calcium. Most high-quality probiotic supplements will only supply you with a fraction of the beneficial bacteria found in such homemade fermented veggies, so it's your most economical route to optimal gut health as well.
Additional healthy choices include lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner), fermented grass-fed organic milk such as kefir, various pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash, and carrots, and natto (fermented soy). Some of the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods are also excellent chelators of heavy metals and pesticides, which will also have a beneficial health effect by reducing your toxic load.
Health Benefits of Kimchi as a Probiotic Food
You're probably familiar with sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt, but one fermented food that's still relatively unknown to North American palates is kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made from fermented vegetables and a spicy blend of chili peppers, garlic, scallions, and other spices. It's common to find kimchi at almost every Korean meal, where it is served alone as a side dish, mixed with rice or noodles, or used as an ingredient in soups or stews. There are many reasons, health-wise, to give kimchi a try if you've never had it -- it's rich in vitamins A and C, for instance. But what makes kimchi unique is its fermentation process, which leads to the production of beneficial Lactobacilli bacteria. The Journal of Medicinal Food explained:10
"Kimchi is a traditional Korean food manufactured by fermenting vegetables with probiotic lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Many bacteria are involved in the fermentation of kimchi, but LAB become dominant while the putrefactive bacteria are suppressed during salting of baechu cabbage and the fermentation. The addition of other subingredients and formation of fermentation byproducts of LAB promote the fermentation process of LAB to eventually lead to eradication of putrefactive and pathogenic bacteria, and also increase the functionalities of kimchi. Accordingly, kimchi can be considered a vegetable probiotic food that contributes health benefits in a similar manner as yogurt as a dairy probiotic food."
In many ways, kimchi may be even better than yogurt, as it contains other noteworthy superfoods as well, like cruciferous vegetables, garlic, ginger, red pepper, and more, which significantly boost its health potential. GreenMedInfo lists nearly two-dozen studies showing kimchi's benefits,11 and, according to a study in The Journal of Medicinal Food,12 kimchi has an impressive roster of health functionality that includes:
Anticancer Antiobesity Anticonstipation Colorectal health promotion Probiotic properties Cholesterol reduction Fibrolytic effect Antioxidative properties Antiaging properties Brain health promotion Immune promotion Skin health promotion
Health Goal: Swap Out One Processed-Food Meal for Fermented Foods
Eliminating processed foods from your diet might seem overwhelming, but it doesn't need to be. Start slowly with this "bite-sized" step: swap out one of your processed-food meals (or even a snack) with homemade fermented foods. You can try a kefir smoothie (blend kefir with frozen berries and, if you like, a couple of organic raw eggs) or a serving of fermented veggies or kimchi. You can find step-by-step instructions to make your own fermented vegetables at home here. Just one-quarter to one-half cup of fermented veggies, eaten with one to three meals per day, can have a dramatically beneficial impact on your health.
If you've never eaten fermented foods, too large a portion may provoke a healing crisis, which occurs when the probiotics kill off pathogens in your gut. When these pathogens die, they release potent toxins. If you are new to fermented foods, you should introduce them gradually, beginning with as little as one teaspoon of sauerkraut or kimchi with a meal. Observe your reactions for a couple of days before proceeding with another small portion, and increase your dose gradually, as tolerated. Remember, many food preferences develop very early in life, so the sooner you can introduce fermented vegetables to your children, the better.
Traces of the flavors of the foods mothers eat are perceptible in their breast milk and amniotic fluid. Babies whose mothers eat foods like garlic, broccoli, or kimchi while pregnant tend to be more likely to enjoy these foods later in life. Once you've reached your goal of swapping out one processed-food meal with fermented foods, make another goal, such as swapping out your snack of chips or pretzels for raw veggies and dip – or replacing your daily soda with a glass of green vegetable juice. As you continue making changes, use your momentum and increased energy to keep moving forward, tackling one unhealthy habit at a time. Soon you'll be rid of processed foods entirely… along with all the health troubles that go along with them.