Could Diet Play a Role in Crohn's Disease?

Health Professional

The cause of Crohn's disease, according to the National Institutes of Health, is still a mystery. There are many theories but none has been definitively proven.

Some researchers are wondering if diet may play a role in this disease. It's a notion that would seem to make some sense - after all, the job of the digestive system is to interact with the outside world by breaking down and absorbing food all day. Plenty of other factors we encounter in our environment can cause diseases. Why couldn't food play a role?

According to researchers who looked at this issue in the journal Gut last fall, Crohn's disease - a type of inflammatory bowel disease - is less common in underdeveloped countries (where people eat much differently than we do in the United States). As Japan has adopted a more Western diet, the number of cases of Crohn's disease has risen markedly.

The researchers looked at whether certain food components could play some role in the development of Crohn's disease. As they point out, bacteria in the gut play an important role in the development of inflammatory bowel disease. They found that certain types of plant fibers inhibit E. coli bacteria in the gut from passing across "M cells." These cells are found in the digestive system, and their job is to grab potential threats passing by and present them to the immune system. However, even low amounts of an ingredient that's commonly used in processed foods seemed to increase this passage of bacteria through the M cells, pointing to a possible connection of poor diet and pathology from Crohn's disease.

Another study from last fall - this one in the World Journal of Gastroenterology - looked at the diet that people followed before being diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, and compared it to the diet among a group of people without the disease. They found that people who ate a lot of red meat and cheese appeared to be at higher risk of Crohn's disease.

Will eating a more nutritious diet help protect you from developing Crohn's disease? Maybe, maybe not. But it's a good idea to try it, since a more nutritious diet can also protect you from far more common problems, ranging from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and some cancers. Here are the most important ways you can make your diet more healthy, according to the 2010 version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • Less than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat (which is found in red meat and other animal foods, like full-fat milk and cheese). Consider replacing them with mono- and polyunsaturated fat, like from olive oil and fatty fish.

  • Minimize trans-fatty acids - often found in processed foods - as much as possible.

  • Eat more fiber-rich vegetables and fruits.

  • At least half of your grain foods should be whole grains, rather than refined grains.

  • Get your protein not just from meat, but from seafood, eggs, beans, peas, soy foods, and unsalted nuts and seeds.

My book, The New Prescription, is available this May and offers more tips and techniques on how to optimize your health - often with less use of the health care system.