Is eating a Western diet worth the risk?

A study has shown a Western diet may increase risk of gut infections. 


I don’t think you will be shocked to hear that eating a diet rich in sugar and trans fats puts you at risk of ill health. However, you may not have realised that it could also make you more susceptible to stomach upsets and gut inflammation. Well, that’s at least what a recent study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Cleveland Clinic concluded. Here I will explain why. 

How does a Western diet lead to gut inflammation?

The study showed that a high sugar and fat diet damaged some critical immune cells in the digestive tract known as Paneth cells. If these cells don’t function properly, then your digestive system is more susceptible to inflammation. Inflammation in the digestive tract not only means that you are more likely to have nutrient deficiencies, but it also puts you more at risk of developing more severe conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), intestinal infections and autoimmune disorders. 

The pioneering research now provides scientists with an understanding of why eating a Western diet is a contributing factor in developing conditions such as IBD and will help direct therapies for this condition. As a nutritional therapist, this type of study gives insight into managing symptoms of my clients who are prone to gut infections and IBD.

Health seems complex, but it really can be that simple. Eating a healthy diet is not only fundamental to weight management but may prevent you from severe inflammatory conditions also.  

Sugar and trans fat are the culprits (yet again!)

A common issue for those with the IBD condition, Crohn’s disease, is that the Paneth cells have often stopped working. Those with Crohn’s disease have experienced abdominal pain, changeable bowel habits and fatigue. The purpose of the study was to understand why this happened, and they noticed early on that those who were obese were more likely to have abnormal and unhealthy Paneth cell. The higher a person’s BMI was, the worse their Paneth cells.

However, following a further investigation in mice studies, the scientist found that it wasn’t a mouse’s weight that was the problem. It was diet. Those mice that were overweight but ate a regular diet, albeit too many calories, had normal Paneth cells. Yet, the mice that ate a diet rich in fat and sugar similar to the Western diet,  the damage prevailed. 

Food as medicine 

The good news is that in this study, the damage was reversible. When the mice were put back on a healthy diet, guess what? The healthy Paneth cells returned within four weeks, which means there could be these options for humans as well. You see if you are eating a Western diet day in and day out, you may become chronically ill through your diet alone! Health seems complex, but it really can be that simple. Eating a healthy diet is not only fundamental to weight management but may prevent you from severe inflammatory conditions also.  

However, the limitation of this study is that it was conducted over eight weeks, and the reality is that many of us have been eating a Western diet for years. For some, it may not be a quick fix, but there are many other benefits of eating a whole food healthy diet. There is no better day to start making positive changes in your life than today!

Lui et al. are now investigating whether sugar or fat has the most impact on Paneth cells as this will provide even more insight into the trigger of gut inflammation in those with chronic disease. Watch this space!


Ta-Chiang Liu, Justin T. Kern, Umang Jain, Naomi M. Sonnek, Shanshan Xiong, Katherine F. Simpson, Kelli L. VanDussen, Emma S. Winkler, Talin Haritunians, Atika Malique, Qiuhe Lu, Yo Sasaki, Chad Storer, Michael S. Diamond, Richard D. Head, Dermot P.B. McGovern, Thaddeus S. Stappenbeck. Western diet induces Paneth cell defects through microbiome alterations and farnesoid X receptor and type I interferon activation. Cell Host & Microbe, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.chom.2021.04.004

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W1G & Harrogate HG1
Written by V. J. Hamilton, Autoimmune Disease Expert | BSc (Immunology), DipION, mBANT
London W1G & Harrogate HG1

After 25 years of suffering from multiple autoimmune conditions that affected her energy, skin
& hair, VJ discovered she could uncover the root cause of her issues to transform her health & live without symptoms.

VJ now uses these same principles to help women with autoimmune disease regain their strength & live a whole and symptom-free life.

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