Eating burgers and fries can be as harmful as catching a life-threatening illness, according to a new study.
Scientists at the University of Bonn discovered that junk food causes the immune system to go haywire, as if they were being attacked by a serious disease.
A fast food diet makes immune cells more aggressive over time, increasing the risk of developing major illnesses – these effects can last long after a switch to a healthier diet of fruit and vegetables.
Researchers say the findings could explain the link between fast food and the hardening of arteries, since the typical deposits largely consists of lipids and immune cells.
‘It has only recently been discovered the innate immune system has a form of memory,’ researcher Eicke Latz said. ‘After an infection, the body’s defenses remain in a kind of alarm state, so they can respond more quickly to a new attack.’
Fast food meals are typically high in fat, sugar and sodium. They’ve been linked to many adverse health effects, including an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer.
In fact, a 2014 study found that a poor diet could weaken the immune system. It revealed that consuming 100 grams of sugar could limit the ability of white blood cells to destroy harmful microorganisms.
For the current study, researchers conducted mice and human experiments.
They put mice on a ‘western style’ diet laden with fat and sugar and low in fiber. They found that the mice developed a strong inflammatory response through their body.
‘The unhealthy diet led to an unexpected increase in the number of certain immune cells in the blood of the mice, especially granulocytes and monocytes,’ said lab member Dr Anette Christ explained. ‘This was an indication for an involvement of immune cell progenitors in the bone marrow.’
The findings, published in Cell, support previous studies that have shown that the Western diet activates certain genes that are responsible for ‘proliferation and maturation.’
In some of the human subjects, researchers saw genetic evidence of the involvement of inflammasomes, a chemical that recognize agents and other harmful substances and release high inflammatory messengers.
Based on their findings, researchers concluded junk food causes DNA changes.
‘The inflammasome triggers such epigenetic changes,’ Professor Latz explained. ‘The immune system consequently reacts even to small stimuli with stronger inflammatory responses.’
This inflammatory response causes newly activated immune cells to migrate to altered blood vessel walls. When they get too large they can burst, leading to clots, and an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Latz said the foundations of a healthy diet need to become a more prominent part of education so that people, especially children, can make conscious decisions regarding their dietary habits.