According to a new study, eating a typical “Western diet” weakens the immune system in the gut and may increase the risk of infection and inflammatory bowel disease. 

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Cleveland Clinic carried out their studies in both mice and people. Results showed that a high-fat diet, rich in sugar, causes damage to Paneth cells: immune cells in the gut that help control and regulate inflammation. (1)  

When Paneth cells aren’t functioning properly, the gut immune system is more prone to inflammation, putting people at risk of inflammatory bowel disease and undermining effective control of disease-causing microbes.

What Are Paneth Cells?

Paneth cells were first described over a hundred years ago as granulated cells at the bottom of the small intestinal glands. Their role remained largely unknown until recently, where they are now considered to be crucial as a natural defense as regulators of microbial density in the small intestine, and in the protection of nearby stem cells.

During the latest study, clinical data were collected on 400 patients, including an evaluation of each person’s Paneth cells. The researchers found that high body mass index (BMI) was associated with Paneth cells that looked non-typical and unhealthy. The higher a person’s BMI, the worse their Paneth cells looked. 

Impairment of Paneth cells is one of the key characteristics of inflammatory bowel disease, including people with Crohn’s disease, a kind of inflammatory bowel disease that can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, anemia, and fatigue.

Western Diet

Although there was a link between high BMI and abnormal Paneth cells, results showed that obesity did not necessarily damage cells. The lead author of the study, Ta-Chiang Liu, MD, Ph.D., said, ”Obesity wasn’t the problem per se. Eating too much of a healthy diet didn’t affect the Paneth cells. It was the high-fat, high-sugar diet that was the problem.” 

Test results carried out on mice showed cells returned to normal after four weeks of consuming a regular diet. 

Liu also said. “This was a short-term experiment, just eight weeks. In people, obesity doesn’t occur overnight or even in eight weeks. People have a suboptimal lifestyle for 20, 30 years before they become obese. It’s possible that if you have a Western diet for so long, you cross a point of no return and your Paneth cells don’t recover even if you change your diet. We’d need to do more research before we can say whether this process is reversible in people.” (2) 

A Change For Good, And A Good Time To Change

As more countries around the globe begin to adopt Western lifestyles, including diet, gut inflammation and compromised immune systems are becoming increasingly common. 

Consuming a diet that’s high in fat and sugars can damage the natural performance of immune cells in the gut. This may lead to inflammatory bowel disease or increase the risk of intestinal infections. New knowledge garnished from this study along with promoting a change of lifestyle choices can help improve, not just gut health, but overall wellbeing and salubrity. Perhaps now is a good time to change, and make a change for good.


  1. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/05/210518114235.htm
  2. https://medicine.wustl.edu/news/western-diet-may-increase-risk-of-gut-inflammation-infection/

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