Why Scientists Put Your Diet Under the Microscope

For IBD, food plays a role in risk

woman with stomach pain

If it seems like you know a lot more people with a painful digestive disease these days, it’s not just your imagination.

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Cases of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have increased dramatically in recent years — and they keep rising. Estimates say that 1.4 million Americans have some form of IBD.

These diseases aren’t just “trendy” because they’re getting more media attention, either. Ask a patient who has Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, and they’ll tell you their symptoms are all too real.

What’s to blame for the increase? To answer that question, medical researchers examine many factors — including the foods we eat.

“If you are one of the millions of Americans at risk for developing an IBD, it might be time to start reading labels more carefully — and put your own diet under the microscope.”

Paul DiCorleto

Paul DiCorleto, PhD

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Lerner Research Institute

The science of IBD

IBD refers to inflammatory disorders of the intestine that lead to debilitating cramps, diarrhea, anemia and even malnutrition. Some cases come with more severe symptoms.

For example, Crohn’s disease typically strikes young people in their early teens and 20s. It can cause embarrassing social situations and distress on top of physical symptoms. And a 2013 study showed a 65 percent increase in hospitalizations among children with IBD.

With numbers on the rise, we have learned a great deal about the science of these disorders. We know a combination of genetic and environmental factors cause them, including how our bodies handle the bacteria living in our intestines.

We also know IBD occurs more frequently in industrialized nations and in urban areas. It turns out a Western diet is a risk factor.

Christine McDonald, PhD, an IBD research expert in the Lerner Research Institute Department of Pathobiology, focuses on the relatively recent, rapid increase in Crohn’s disease. To her, this rise points to something in our modern lifestyle that is promoting disease development.

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A possible culprit? The widespread use of food additives.

What’s in your food?

Dr. McDonald recently discovered that maltodextrin (modified cornstarch) seems to alter intestinal bacteria, which could present challenges to the normal digestive process. Maltodextrin is a common food additive. Manufacturers use it to improve flavor and texture in many packaged foods.

Another recent study from her lab showed that maltodextrin promotes survival of Salmonella bacteria, commonly associated with food poisoning. Her research indicates maltodextrin can increase the amount of bacteria in your gut and decrease your antibacterial defenses. The problem? This may create the ideal environment for Crohn’s disease to develop.

Other studies have suggested links between Crohn’s and chemicals such as emulsifiers, sucralose and food dyes. In healthy people, small amounts of food additives likely will not cause illness. But heavy use over time can significantly alter the intestinal environment. It may lead to disease in people who are genetically at risk for developing IBD.

There’s more work to be done in this field. But Dr. McDonald’s research, and other work like it, may help us better understand the complex interaction of risk factors. It’s especially important if you want to understand the risk factors you can control, such as your diet.

If you are one of the millions of Americans at risk for developing an IBD, it might be time to start reading labels more carefully — and put your own diet under the microscope.


Paul DiCorleto, PhD

As Chair of the Lerner Research Institute, Paul DiCorleto, PhD, oversees all laboratory and clinical research at Cleveland Clinic. He is an expert in cardiovascular biology.