Cancel the order of chips – eating junk food disturbs a healthy immune system much like a bacterial infection does.

This is according to a recent study led by the University of Bonn.

Even long after switching to a healthy diet, inflammation towards innate immune stimulation is more pronounced.

These long-term changes may be involved in the development of arteriosclerosis and diabetes.

Related: Study: Even one junk food snack is too much

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The study

Scientists placed mice on a so-called “Western diet” – high in fat, high in sugar, and low in fibre – for a month.

The animals developed a strong inflammatory response, almost like after infection with dangerous bacteria.

When the researchers offered the rodents their typical cereal diet for another four weeks, the acute inflammation disappeared. What did not disappear was the genetic reprogramming of the immune cells and their precursors: Even after these four weeks, many of the genes that had been switched on during the fast food phase were still active.

Immune system has a memory

“It has only recently been discovered that the innate immune system has a form of memory,” says Prof Eicke Latz, Director of the Institute for Innate Immunity of the University of Bonn and scientist at the DZNE. “After an infection, the body’s defences remain in a kind of alarm state, so that they can respond more quickly to a new attack.”

Experts call this “innate immune training”. In the mice, this process was not triggered by a bacterium, but by an unhealthy diet.

Related: Is job stress driving you to eat junk food?

The long-term consequences

There are also long-term consequences: The activation by Western diet changes the way in which the genetic information is packaged. Scientists call these phenomena epigenetic changes.

“The inflammasome triggers such epigenetic changes,” explains Prof Latz. “The immune system consequently reacts even to small stimuli with stronger inflammatory responses.”

Source: University of Bonn via

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