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Obesity, Heart Disease & Diabetes: How Processed Food Can Wreck Your Gut Microbiome

Potato chips on a plate.
Potato chips on a plate.

You’ve probably heard eating too much processed food is bad for you. A new study suggests why: What you eat can alter the microbiome in your gut that can affect your health.

Findings from a major research project designed to look at individual responses to food found people who eat minimally processed foods like vegetables, nuts, eggs and seafood were likely to have beneficial gut bacteria.

But eating a diet full of highly processed foods with added sugars, salt, and other additives had the opposite effect, promoting gut microbes linked to problems like obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

KERA’s Sam Baker talked about this with Dr. Ming Nghi, an internist with Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and with Texas Health Physicians Group.


About Microbiomes

The microbiome is the organisms, bacteria and fungi that live in and on us. They help manufacture vitamins that even are considered, in some ways, part of the first line of defense for our immune systems.

These organisms are very sensitive to what we eat. Processed foods, sugar, salt, and fat can change what organisms are present. So, the ratio of the different organisms and what are there and what aren't there can affect our health.

Importance Of Tying Processed Foods To The Microbiomes

So we know more now about how important it is — what we put in our mouth. But this study is interesting in that they followed people, and they prescribed a diet, and they check their health. They checked saliva, they checked the stool samples, sugar samples, on an ongoing basis. They did show even in the short amount of time that it had been going on and that there were some benefits.

Processed Food Doesn’t Affect Everyone The Same Way

It's such a complex story that we don't really know it all yet. We've been looking for years of the role of diet with heart disease. And there's been many studies across the world that have looked into this.

There's some European studies, but they had French and Italian people, for example, versus that people from the UK and the rates of cardiovascular disease and even stomach cancer.

Even though stereotypical French and Italian people ate higher fat foods compared to say a British person or an American person, their rates of heart disease were much lower. So some genetics do play a role in this, along with the dietary intake.

More About The Study

This study only lasted about a year, so I think there needs to be more investigation into this to really see the effects on cardiovascular and even cancer health. But, you know, even in the first year, they could see differences in people's blood sugars and fat composition and such. And so, it seems promising. I think it's really opening the door for more research.

What's So Bad About Processed Foods?

There's a lot more of certain things, sodium and sugar, for example, than many people need. Some people don't handle that as well as others.

People that have kidney failure, for example, or hypertension, shouldn't be doing that much to their body because you're just creating extra work, and part of the problem is they can't handle the extra work.

Heart failure patients, especially, can't handle the extra sodium. When we look at reduced fat items, what they do to reduce the fat and compensate for flavor is either add salt or sugar or both.

And if you're a diabetic with heart disease, you really shouldn't be doing that. It's just straining the system more than it should.

The Major Takeaway From The Study

It tells us a lot more about how things work. The microbiomes only really now are being understood. They've classically been very hard to isolate in the laboratory setting because the environment in the lab is, is very difficult to reproduce what's in our colon.

For example, it's opening the door for tailored diets, prescribed pharmaceutical foods and things like that that may help. I'm sure we've tried to diet once or twice in our lifetimes. And sometimes we weren't that successful. Well, maybe we weren't doing the right combination of foods in the right proportions for our own personal situation. And this is opening the door for that I think.


Microbiome Study

How the Right Foods May Lead to a Healthier Gut, and Better Health

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.