Fast food may have a greater effect on your gut health than you realize. Like most people, you probably already know that eating too much fast food or junk food is bad for you. The reasons are obvious. The extra calories can make you overweight, and overprocessed foods often have little nutritional value.
Of course, every cell in your body requires nourishment, and much of that nourishment comes from what you eat. Eating the wrong foods, or not enough of the right ones, can impede normal digestive processes. Additionally, you won’t feed your body the nutrition it needs. Therefore, maintaining optimum gut health has to be a priority. That might even mean ignoring some of your unhealthy food cravings.
Inside your gut, from your stomach to your colon, is a microbiome unique to yourself alone. This microbiome includes a plethora of bacteria that was established for you during your first few years of life. However, there are ways of maintaining and altering your gut environment for the better or worse.
Gut Health and Your Immune System
Researchers are learning more and more about how a host of microbiota in your GI tract not only assists with digestion, but they also help your body maintain its immune system against unfriendly bacteria, viruses, and diseases. Some of the issues a healthy gut can keep at bay include the following:
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Even some cancers have been linked to an unhealthy GI microbiome. Your gut maintains communication and chemical exchanges with systems throughout the body, so maintaining a healthy gut immune system is vital to combating infections and chronic illnesses of all kinds.
Attack of the fast food
Studies have shown that the immune system can begin to respond to the high fat and calorie content of fast food as to an attacking infection. Scientists believe an increased sensitivity and aggressive reaction to the presence of certain types of foods may lead to permanent changes in the way a person’s gut immune system works. These changes can lead to such conditions as diabetes or arteriosclerosis.
Take back your microbial army
But habitual fast-food junkies need not give up hope. By making healthy changes in diet, many hyperactive immune system issues can be brought under control or even normalized. But the immune system may stay on high alert, so if you return to a fast-food diet, your immune system will respond quickly to the perceived threat.
It’s never too late to begin a conscious effort to be the boss of your own diet, no matter how much junk food cravings may scream about it. But the good changes must be permanent if you hope to maintain balanced gut health and a strong immune system against the real bad guys, the infections and diseases that try to attack your body.
Unhealthy Food and Inflammation
Fast-food diets are known to be high in fat and low in fiber. Consuming too much of these foods disrupts gut health by throwing off your microbiome balance, reducing the number of good bacteria available to reduce inflammation. Too much ongoing inflammation increases your chances of developing such conditions as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
What foods to avoid
Unaddressed gut inflammation may result in the onset of Crohn’s Disease, chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or even acute pancreatitis (AP). Some of the foods that may lead to inflammation are:
- Added processed sugars
- Trans fats
- Vegetable and seed oils
- Refined carbohydrates (have most of the fiber removed)
- Too much alcohol
- Processed meat (and yes, that includes bacon)
What foods to focus on
There’s no question that most of the above are available in abundance on any drive-thru menu board. IBS and other digestive health issues have been traced to allowing too many on-the-go convenience foods to dominate overall diet routines. However, many drive-thru menus also offer at least some healthy alternatives.
Careful grocery shopping will also provide you with many quick, healthy alternatives to help restore balance to your gut, reduce inflammation, and help take off extra weight. Choosing a salad over fries, water over soda, grilled chicken or fish over greasy, processed burgers, and nuts or fresh fruit instead of fatty, sugary treats is a good start toward reducing inflammation and restoring gut health.
Your children’s future fast food habits
Expectant mothers need to be especially cautious, as some studies show that a mother’s tastes can be passed on to her children, creating a generational struggle with unhealthy cravings and resultant health issues. Also, feeding children a healthy diet for the first few years of life can help set their taste for good food for a lifetime.
Controlling Metabolism Through Diet
Metabolism refers to how many calories your body burns and how well it performs that task. So having a slow metabolism can mean it’s much harder to lose unhealthy weight. Your body can often digest junk food more quickly than healthier foods, which means it uses fewer calories to perform those processes. That means you’ll have a lot more calories left over to be stored throughout the body as fat.
Junk food can also trigger the release of massive amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates pleasure in the brain. This can result in food addiction and a cycle of fast eating and slow digestion that ultimately leaves you feeling tired and sluggish.
Sugary sodas can be one of the worst culprits. Initially, they may give you a quick energy boost, but in the long run, sodas can slow down your metabolism overall, causing increased fat storage and increasing your chances of developing obesity, liver disease, heart disease, or metabolic syndrome.
Danger of Diet Soda
These issues are not limited to those who drink regularly sweetened drinks. Diet soda has also been shown to have negative effects on metabolic functions. Although switching to diet soda may seem to make a difference at first, studies show that these drinks can lead to weight gain over time.
Sugary sodas can also impede the growth of critical bacteria in your digestive tract, leading to poor gut health. This applies to both regular and diet sodas. So for healthy digestion and microbial balance, you’ll have to ditch the sodas, or at least severely limit them to special occasions.
The good news is there are many diet choices that can boost your metabolic rate. You can feel more energized, increase your endurance, and rev up calorie usage by choosing healthy foods over quicker, more gratifying ones.
Fast Food Fever
If you know you eat more junk food than you should but you can’t see any major effects, it may be time to re-evaluate. A disruption in digestive health may not mean just GI problems. Some other symptoms of an unhealthy gut may include:
- Dental issues
- Shortness of breath
- Attention and concentration issues
- Bloating or puffiness
- Problems sleeping
- Mood swings or depression
If you experience any of these issues on a regular basis, you may want to consider how your gut responds to what you feed it. Fast food fever is a very real problem, especially in western cultures. A failure to introduce the required amounts of vitamin and mineral nutrients into the digestive system can lead to a lifetime of chronic illness.
An imbalance in your microbiota can result in the shutting down, or at least the delaying, of your body’s early warning system for infections and diseases. It can cause the production of fewer white blood cells to fight invading bacteria and viruses, leaving you vulnerable to illness. It can also make you more prone to developing colon cancer or other deadly conditions.
A radical change in lifestyle and mindfulness may be required to reverse the ill-effects caused by years of heavy junk food consumption. For some, it may be akin to installing a whole new operating system on your PC. It’s a pain to learn, but your metabolism will run faster and more efficiently in the end.
Final Thoughts on the Link Between Fast Food and Gut Health
Diet and exercise are two of the main factors determining overall health. Learning what foods to eat and what to avoid can literally help you maintain a healthy gut. Each person has a unique microbiome and so there not necessarily a blanket diet that will satisfy every person’s needs.
Nutrition experts can help you determine not only what types of food will most benefit you, but the most advantageous methods of preparing them for maximum nutrient absorption, whether cooked or raw. Adding creative, healthy food choices will also make your eating experience more interesting and satisfying.
An occasional burger or fries will probably not have a huge effect on your overall health. The important goal is to encourage gut health by avoiding a diet saturated with fast food choices. It is up to you to take control of your diet priorities now so that you can live life to the fullest and share it for as long as possible with those you cherish.