Scientists: Fast food is caused by a spike in autoimmune diseases

Immune system disorders are on the rise everywhere due to the global popularity of the so-called Western diet.

Autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, have increased in recent decades, according to researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London, James Lee and Carola Vineusa.

Lee and Vineusa have devoted their research to investigating the cause of such diseases, which they believe may be blamed for the recent proliferation of fast foods, “which lack certain important ingredients.”

“The number of autoimmune cases began to rise about 40 years ago in the West,” Lee told the Guardian’s Observer in a new interview. “Now, however, we are seeing some appearing in countries that have never had such diseases.”

Lee referred to the cases in Asia and the Middle East where there has been the biggest increase recently [inflammatory bowel disease] – which at that time was experiencing a boom in the fast food industry.

“Before that, they had barely seen the disease,” he said.

Vineusa said “the global spread of fast food chains cannot be stopped.”

“So instead, we’re trying to understand the fundamental genetic mechanisms that support autoimmune diseases and make some people susceptible, but not others.”

Autoimmune diseases are caused by the inability of the immune system to differentiate between invading organisms and local tissues, which causes the immune system to attack healthy cells as well. Inflammation due to a recurrent immune response can cause long-term damage to affected organs and tissues.

“Something needs to change in the outside world in a way that increases our susceptibility to autoimmune diseases.”

James Lee, researcher at the Francis Crick Institute

Today, an estimated 24 million Americans – nearly 7% of the population – suffer from one of these diseases, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Their research has shown that the prevalence of biomarkers of autoimmune diseases has increased in those aged 12 and older, from 22 million Americans in 1988–1991 to 41 million in 2011–2012.

“Human genetics hasn’t changed in recent decades,” Lee explained. “So someone needs to change in the outside world in a way that increases our susceptibility to autoimmune diseases.”

Vineusa said: “Fast food diets lack certain important ingredients, such as fiber, and evidence suggests that this change affects the human microbiome – a collection of microorganisms in our gut that play a key role in controlling various bodily functions.”

“These changes in our microbiomes will then trigger autoimmune diseases, of which more than 100 types have now been found,” he added.

Vineusa assured that eating fast food was not a guarantee that someone would get these diseases.

“If you don’t have a certain genetic predisposition, you may not get an autoimmune disease no matter how many Big Macs you eat,” he said.

These enigmatic diseases dictate individual genetic variations that researchers hope to be able to identify in order to develop more targeted treatments. More than 250 variants of inflammatory bowel disease alone are now known – from just under a dozen when Lee and Vineusa began their research years ago.

“We have many potentially useful new treatments that are constantly being developed, but we don’t know which patients they should be given because we now understand that we don’t know exactly what version of the disease they have,” Vineusa explained.

They remind us that there is currently no cure for these diseases.

“More and more people are having surgery or having to get regular injections for the rest of their lives,” Lee said. “It can be grim for patients and a huge pressure on health services. That’s why there is an urgent need to find new, effective treatments.”

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