If you find yourself unable to be too far away from a bathroom at any given moment, especially when you’re eating, you may be dealing with irritable bowel disease (IBD). The unpredictable urge or flare-up of this condition can be anxiety-inducing, leaving you worried to leave the home and affecting your personal life.

According to the CDC, IBD is a term that’s used for two conditions — Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both are conditions that deal with chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that leads to damage. The only difference between the two is that ulcerative colitis has damage in the large intestine and rectum where Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract, but it often impacts the small intestine most.

The exact cause of IBD is still unknown, but new research has indicated that there may be a culprit behind the onset and increased risk of IBD.

How do processed foods cause IBD?

Previous studies have indicated that dietary factors play a role in the onset of IBD, but the connection between processed foods and IBD had limited evidence. That’s why a new study published in the BMJ in July 2021 wanted to determine if ultra-processed foods led to a high risk of IBD.

Researchers collected dietary information from 116,087 adults across the world who were aged 35 to 70 years old and living in 21 low, middle, and high-income countries. The study spanned from 2003 all the way until 2016, with researchers assessing participants every 3 years, and collecting outcome data until 2019.

During the span of the study, 467 participants developed IBD — 90 with Crohn’s disease and 377 with ulcerative colitis. When researchers analyzed their diets they saw that higher intakes of ultra-processed foods were associated with an increased risk of IBD.

For example, those who ate five or more servings of ultra-processed foods had an 82% increased risk of IBD compared to those that ate less than 1 serving. If the servings ranged from 1 to 4 each day, the risk increased by 67%. Higher risks were associated with certain subgroups of ultra-processed foods including:

  • Soft drinks
  • Refined sweetened foods
  • Salty snacks
  • Processed meat

Although this study may shine a light on the link between IBD and processed foods, further research needs to be conducted.

Is IBD related to IBS and what is the difference?

While these two conditions have similar initials they are actually very different. IBD is an inflammation and damage to the bowel wall, while IBS is a condition higher up in the digestive tract, in the colon or large intestine, and can cause feelings of nausea, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation. Stress can be a trigger, as can some foods, so if you have either IBS or IBD staying away from junk foods is a good idea. The two are not related, despite the fact that they share some symptoms and initials.

What are processed foods?

It’s likely you’ve heard of processed foods which are defined by food that has been changed from its natural state. This could be the inclusion of substances such as salt, sugar, or oil.

The NOVA classification of processed foods by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations categorizes foods as the following:

  • Unprocessed and minimally processed foods: Unprocessed foods are what we commonly call whole foods and include fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, fish, fungi, and algae. Minimally processed foods include those that manufacturers alter by removing inedible parts, boiling, pasteurizing, vacuum packaging, grinding, powdering, and freezing.
  • Processed foods: These include canned or bottled vegetables or legumes in brine, fruit in syrup, processed meats such as pastrami and bacon, cheese that contains salt, and most bread. Processed foods and processed culinary ingredients contain salt, oil, and sugar and manufacturers use several production methods to make them.
  • Ultra-processed foods: These are formulations of mostly cheap ingredients such as wheat, soya, sugar cane, and ground animal carcasses. Manufacturers use a series of production methods and add salt, fats, and sugar as well as colors, fillers, and synthetic additives to make ultra-processed foods hyper-palatable. Examples include soft drinks, hot dogs, burgers, and packaged desserts, such as cookies and cakes.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends that people focus on including nutrient-dense foods in their diets such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and limit foods with added sugars, saturated fats, and salt. Avoiding ultra-processed foods and eating a whole foods plant-based diet can help someone to achieve this.

Foods to avoid if you have IBS

However, everyone is different and may tolerate some foods and not others when it comes to having IBD. Working with a registered dietitian or doctor can help to understand what foods may affect you personally and create a meal plan that you can follow when you’re dealing with flare-ups.

According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, there are several categories of food that may end up triggering symptoms such as diarrhea, cramping, and bloating. They are:

  • Insoluble fiber foods: insoluble fiber is difficult to digest and is found in foods such as fruit with skin, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, and whole grains
  • Lactose: this is the sugar that is found in dairy products. This is only true for dairy that comes from animals, choosing a plant-based option will avoid lactose altogether.
  • Non-absorbable sugars: sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and mannitol, are often found in chewing gum, candies, and ice cream.
  • High-fat foods: foods that contain saturated fats should especially be avoided. According to a 2019 animal study, a high-fat diet can trigger oxidative stress in the colon and lead to further inflammation.
  • Alcohol and drinks with caffeine: getting in enough water is key when you deal with Crohn’s or colitis. Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics, meaning they increase urine production, which can lead to loss of fluids.
  • Spicy foods: even without IBD, spicy foods can trigger inflammation in the GI tract and lead to side effects like heartburn and indigestion.

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation also suggests following these few simple tips to prevent IBD complications:

  • Eat smaller, frequent meals throughout the day
  • Drink lots of water to stay fully hydrated (and avoid using straws to prevent ingestion of air that could lead to gas)
  • Use simple cooking techniques, such as grilling, boiling, steaming, or poaching
  • Journal your food intake to be able to pinpoint a food that may trigger a flare-up

New research has shown that eating ultra-processed foods may lead to an increased risk of IBD. Although more research needs to be conducted to confirm this link, ultra-processed foods have years of research that pairs it up with other health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Eating a whole foods diet as well as identifying any IBD triggers with a journal or the help of a Registered Dietitian can help someone to find a diet that suits them.

Bottom line: Replace processed foods with a whole foods plant-based diet

Kicking the habit of processed foods is hard -- That’s why we’ve compiled 6 tips to cut junk food from nutritionists.