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Eating too many sugary processed foods already boosts your risk for weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. But now now there's a brand-new, surprising reason to nix processed foods from your daily diet: They could also increase your risk for debilitating autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
A new study inAutoimmunity Reviews found that seven common additives in food—sugar, salt, emulsifiers, gluten, microbial transglutaminase (aka meat glue), nanoparticles (aka tiny particles that preserve color and freshness), and organic solvents (aka chemicals used as stabilizers, preservatives, or flavorings)—could lead to intestinal permeability (leaky gut), a known precursor to autoimmune diseases.
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Researchers think these additives damage the gut's intestinal barrier, allowing particles like bad bacteria, undigested food, and toxic waste to enter the bloodstream. Our bodies attack these particles, along with healthy cells, promoting inflammation, compromising the immune system, and—in some people—leading to autoimmune diseases over time. ( to heal your body naturally and lose weight.)
So what's a health-conscious consumer to do? While the research doesn't prove these food additivescauseautoimmune conditions or that you should banish all processed foods ASAP, cutting back and focusing instead on fresh whole foods are smart ideas, says Aaron Lerner, PhD, study coauthor. Here are seven specific ways to slash your intake of these additives and boost overall gut health.
1. Sprinkle and drizzle, don't douse.
The problem with processed foods is that you have no control over how much sugar and salt they contain. Sugar is often lurking in crazy quantities, and under 57 different names, in everything from energy bars to "healthy" granolas. Ditto for salt, which can be present at high levels even if the end product, like bread, soup, or a frozen diet meal, doesn't taste overly salty. When you add your own salt, sweeteners, or condiments to mostly unprocessed whole foods, you control how much you ingest—and often, you need only a light sprinkle or drizzle to feel totally satisfied. Take advantage of herbs and spices, too, which add big flavorandhealth benefits.
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2. Beware of all things creamy.
Emulsifiers, often found in things like non-dairy ice cream, almond milk, and creamy salad dressings, are chemicals that make what would be unmixable ingredients mixable. Specific emulsifiers include lecithin, carrageenan, and anything with the suffix "gum." Scan labels and avoid products with these when possible—often, but not always, organic products are a safer bet.
3. Pass on the patchwork meat.
Meat glue, otherwise known as microbial transglutaminase, is an enzyme used to bind proteins in animal foods like hot dogs, bologna, imitation crab, chicken nuggets, and reconstituted steak—basically, anything that takes multiple bits and forms them into one cohesive unit. This is super-easy to avoid: Just stick to minimally messed-around-with "real" protein sources like chicken breasts and thighs, steaks, whole fish fillets, and organic tofu or tempeh.
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4. Say bye to beige foods in a box.
Not only are refined carbs like crackers, breads, pasta, and cookies a blood-sugar spike waiting to happen, many are also packed with gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye and the products made with them. While gluten isn't a problem for everyone, it's always good to eat more whole foods, so try swapping out some of your refined carbs for gluten-free whole grains like quinoa, millet, and amaranth. (These delicious recipes will help you ditch refined carbs for good.)
5. Be skeptical of packaging...and frosting.
Nanoparticles are materials that have been manipulated and reduced to the nano-scale (i.e., they're incredibly tiny, which is why they have the ability to penetrate the gut). One common nanoparticle, titanium dioxide, is used in paper and plastic product packaging to maintain freshness, as well as in packaged foods like frosting, gum, and candy to lend a white pigment. Because companies aren't required to disclose their use, the only way to avoid these miniscule marauders is to buy mostly unpackaged whole foods, and store meals you make at home in glass whenever possible.
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6. Don't OD on sauerkraut.
While booze and fermented foods like sauerkraut can pack potent health benefits when consumed in moderation, they may damage the gut if consumed to excess, as they naturally contain the organic solvent acetaldehyde. In general, don't consume more than one drink per day if you're a woman, and start your fermented veggies intake at just a few tablespoons daily to build up your tolerance if they're not already part of your diet. Once you're acclimated (i.e., no more gas and bloating), fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and lacto-fermented pickles can actually boost gut health.
7. Eat more of these...
Want to know which foods can actually counter the damaging effects of food additives? Check out these seven surprising foods that can boost gut health, and add them to your diet, along with classic gut-friendly picks like high-probiotic kefir, yogurt, and kimchi. All contain nutrients proven to help boost gut health and heal damage to the gut lining, potentially reducing risk for autoimmune conditions.
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