Obesity, colon cancer, IBD: How high-fat diets can increase the risks

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Experts say a diet high in fat can increase the risk of a number of serious diseases. LightFieldStudios/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that a diet high in fat can increase the risk of diseases such as colon cancer.
  • They add that high-fat eating habits can also affect the immune system and brain function.
  • Experts say that even small changes in a person’s diet can have a positive impact on overall health.

Researchers at the University of California Riverside say high fat diets affect genes linked to obesity, colon cancer, and irritable bowels.

They add that the high-fat diets also adversely affect the immune system, brain function, and a person’s risk of getting COVID-19.

In their study published in the journal Scientific Reports, the authors acknowledged other studies have examined the effects of a high-fat diet, but that their research “is unusual in its scope.”

Dr. Anton Bilchik, a surgical oncologist as well as the chief of medicine and the director of the Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Program at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in California, told Medical News Today that the study provides important information.

“It’s showing three different fat diets negatively impact the immune system and microbiome throughout the entire intestinal tract – from the duodenum to the colon,” said Bilchik, who was not involved in the study. “High fat diets suppress genes that are important in the immune system and alter the function of the trillions of bacteria throughout our bodies (the microbiome).”

“The result of this is that we don’t have the defenses to fight diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer,” he added. “These changes can have a deleterious effect on brain function.”

Dr. Babak Firoozi, a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Medical News Today that the high fat diets did appear to alter gene expression.

“What that means is that in the cell, certain genes can be overactivated and certain genes can have their activity reduced,” said Firoozi, who was not involved in the research. “Based on the study, this effect increased metabolism and decreases the immune response.”

“It also appears to negatively affect the gut bacteria or microbiome, leading to a higher presence of pro-inflammatory bacteria,” he added. “This translates into an increased risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

Dr. Sudarsan Kollimuttathuillam, an oncologist and hematologist at City of Hope Orange County in California, told Medical News Today that consuming high levels of fat doesn’t alter the sequencing of DNA directly.

“But the evidence demonstrates the foods you eat affect how your body expresses – turns ‘off’ or ‘on’ – the myriad genetic possibilities your DNA has encoded within it,” said Kollmuttathuillam, who also was not involved in research. “Gene expression ultimately plays a major role in cell functions that increase or decrease the long-term risk of diseases such as obesity, heart disease and cancer.”

How should people respond to the study?

“I see many patients who say they are benefiting from limiting their intake of unhealthy fats, refined sugars, and highly processed foods,” Kollmuttathuillam said. “These patients often report improvement in side effects of their cancer treatment and increased overall health and wellness. Research also suggests that a diet rich in plants, whole foods, healthy fats and high-quality carbs – a Mediterranean-like diet, for example – helps reduce the risk of several of the most common types of cancer, including colorectal, prostate, and breast cancer.”

Dr. Shiara Melissa Ortiz-Pujols, an obesity medicine specialist and surgeon at Northwell Health in Staten Island, New York, told Medical News Today people can improve their health by making small changes in their diet.

“Eating less processed foods and less fast foods can help us to be healthier,” said Ortiz-Pujols, who was not involved in the study. “Even changing our cooking oils to olive oil is a small but realistic change that can promote positive changes in our microbiome.”

“Small changes in our diet can lead to big changes in our health,” she added. “When we talk about diets, we often think about restriction and short-term commitments. I would recommend not thinking about changing what you eat as a diet. Instead, think about making small changes to what and how we eat that will become lifelong habits. If we focus on making small changes, we are more likely to be successful.”

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