With the proliferation of eateries and fast food restaurants, it’s easy to get a doughnut, burger or pizza while on the go.
Fast food meals are typically high in fat, sugar and sodium. Apart from making you pile up the weight and calories, they’ve been linked to many adverse health effects, including an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer.
In fact, a 2014 study found that a poor diet could weaken the immune system.
A recent study carried out by scientists at the University of Bonn have shown that fast food is as harmful as a fatal disease by causing the immune system to act as if it’s being attacked by a serious infection.
Unhealthy food seems to make the body’s defenses more aggressive in the long term. Even long after switching to a healthy diet, inflammation towards innate immune stimulation is more pronounced. These long-term changes may be involved in the development of arteriosclerosis and diabetes, diseases linked to Western diet consumption.
For the current study, researchers conducted mice and human experiments.
They put mice on a ‘western style’ diet laden with fat and sugar and low in fiber. They found that the mice developed a strong inflammatory response throughout their body almost like after infection with dangerous bacteria.
When the researchers offered the rodents their typical cereal diet for another four weeks, the acute inflammation disappeared. What did not disappear was the genetic reprogramming of the immune cells and their precursors: Even after these four weeks, many of the genes that had been switched on during the fast food phase were still active.
The scientists were further able to identify the responsible “fast food sensor” in immune cells.
By investigating some human subjects, researchers saw genetic evidence of the involvement of inflammasomes, a chemical that recognize agents and other harmful substances and release high inflammatory messengers.
“It has only recently been discovered that the innate immune system has a form of memory,” explains Prof. Dr. Eicke Latz, Director of the Institute for Innate Immunity of the University of Bonn. “After an infection, the body’s defenses remain in a kind of alarm state, so that they can respond more quickly to a new attack.”
Experts call this “innate immune training.” In the mice, this process was not triggered by a bacterium, but by an unhealthy diet.
“The inflammasome triggers such epigenetic changes,” explains Dr. Latz. “The immune system consequently reacts even to small stimuli with stronger inflammatory responses.”
Latz said the foundations of a healthy diet need to become a more prominent part of education so that people, especially children, can make conscious decisions regarding their dietary habits.
These findings are published in the journal Cell.