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If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And so it is with processed foods, which boffins now say have a detrimental impact on the community of healthy bacteria in our intestinal tracts, while raising the risk of obesity.

“The environment created in the gut by ultra-processed foods is an evolutionarily unique selection ground for microbes that can promote diverse forms of inflammatory disease,” Norwegian researchers Marit K. Zinöcker and Inge A. Lindseth wrote in a paper published in the medical journal Nutrients earlier this year. 

Their findings echo initial findings by researchers at the Sorbonne whose analysis of nearly 105,000 people’s medical records and eating habits found that simply eating 10 per cent more ultra-processed foods raised the risk of some cancers by 12 per cent, including breast cancer at 11 per cent.

Ultra-processed foods are a hallmark of the Western diet, an eating pattern characteristic of affluent societies today — and probably visible in many Dubai supermarket shopping trolleys. Driven by convenience, ease of preparation and a preponderance of sweet and fatty flavours, this eating pattern features high intakes of red meat, processed meats, pre-packaged snacks, fried foods, butter and high-fat dairy, refined grains, potatoes, corn and high levels of salt and sugar. 

Every living organism hosts a microbiome, a community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms essential to life. They help with specific tasks, such as digestion or preventing colonisation by harmful pathogens. Humans aren’t just a collection of cells comprising the DNA inherited from their parents, but a sum total of this microbiota, explains Dr Nishi Singh, Consultant Medical Microbiologist-Virologist and former Chair, Health Sciences at the Dubai Higher Colleges of Technology. 

“Outnumbering our cells a thousandfold, this microbiome is the major determinant of health and well-being, and needs to be constantly renewed by exposure to the world around.” 

The gut, or human digestive tract, is the principal home of this microbiota, and needs to be constantly fed healthy amounts of beneficial microbes, which is only possible by eating minimally processed or whole foods. “Over-processing and sterilising food to increase its shelf life is counterproductive in the sense that it prevents opportunities of getting the daily dose of healthy bugs,” says Dr Singh.

“It is incorrect to assume that fortified processed foods are the same as whole foods. For example, wholewheat bread stripped of most nutrients then fortified with folic acid is not as absorbable/bioavailable in the body (and can actually be detrimental) versus eating naturally occurring folates in leafy greens or the original grains before processing,” says Dr Lanalle Dunn, Founder of the Chiron Clinic in Dubai, whose background is in biological sciences and naturopathy.

Consistently picking the wrong foods could lead to chronic inflammation, and thereon to illnesses such as depression, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, psoriasis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, Dr Dunn explains. “These chronic diseases have also been associated with gut dysbiosis, which in part is linked to empty calorie foods,” she says.

California-based functional medicine practitioner Dr Michael Ruscio refers to the SALSA study in his book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You. “Simply put, healthy foods feed healthy gut bugs and unhealthy foods feed unhealthy gut bugs. There is some nuance here and no one diet is healthy for everyone — but processed foods are healthy for nearly no one,” he says. 

“Just like different ecosystems require different rainfall, different guts require different food intakes. It’s not hard to figure out what works best for you, you just need some guidance,” Dr Ruscio says.  

Researchers at the Sorbonne analysed nearly 105,000 people’s medical records and eating habits to find that simply eating 10 per cent more ultra-processed foods raised the risk of some cancers by 12 per cent, including breast cancer at 11 per cent

Top tips to heal your microbiome

“If you can’t pick it, grow it or kill it – don’t eat it!” says Dr Lanalle Dunn, Founder of the Chiron Clinic in Dubai. She offers her top tips on stripping processed foods from your diet – and promote a healthy microbiota.

Take the circular route: Always try to shop around the supermarket aisles where all the fresh produce is and not within the aisles where all the canned, boxed and processed foods are located.

Follow the Boy Scout’s motto: Try to have a meal prep system in place so you can plan ahead for a busy week by cooking in advance and portioning out food in daily containers.

Buy better foods: Generally, a healthy population of bacteria will thrive in an intestinal environment rich in fiber (found in most vegetables) as well as fresh fruit and minimally processed/organic protein sources (wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef/ cage-free chicken) and overall low amounts of refined carbohydrates/sugars.

Healthy habits help: Stress, lack of restful sleep and bad diet can all easily turn an overall good population of gut bacteria bad.