National Nutrition Week: Why do you need to avoid processed foods?

National Nutrition Week: Why do you need to avoid processed foods?

Depending on the composition of the invisible army of micro-organisms living in our gut, consumption of preserved and frozen foods and meat can lead to migraines, a leaky gut, and even an increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders

Shillpi A SinghUpdated: Sunday, September 05, 2021, 09:26 PM IST

Have you ever faced a situation when a mild headache becomes a serious one and nags you all day long? Well, it could be a migraine, a frequent headache condition marked by recurrent, throbbing headaches that can last for three days at times. Migraines are distinguished from regular headaches by several symptoms, including nausea and hypersensitivity to light, sound, and smell. But do you know why migraine happens?

According to Sushant Kumar, founder and CEO, Genefitletics, "These headaches are linked to our dietary choices." Sounds incredible, right? He elucidates that depending on the composition of your gut microbiomes, consumption of preserved and frozen foods and meat can lead to migraines, leaky gut, and even an increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders.

Adding on to the discussion, chief nutritionist at Qua Nutrition, Ryan Fernando, says, "The problem could be either with the food that one is having. It could be poisoning the body, thereby creating a response of pain in the body. Secondly, the food could be deficient in magnesium which leads to migraines and headaches."

Food (un)wise

Humans have outsourced many biological functions to 40 trillion micro-organisms living in the gut, namely bacteria, fungi, viruses, and algae, with around 20 million genes of their own. These groups of organisms called the gut microbiome that maintains a symbiotic relationship with the body. "The microbial community in our gut is the CEO of our body, taking all life decisions. However, our gut bacteria is calling all the shots and are key decision-makers in every aspect of our health, whether metabolic, digestive or mental health. By optimising our gut microbiome, we will be able to take care of our health," says Kumar.

To explain, he adds how the microbial community rents out the real estate in the gut and feeds on a portion of the calories that a person consumes. In return, the microbial community releases metabolites that help digest our food, train our immune system, minimise inflammation, and synthesise critical vitamins and neurotransmitters.

For decades, people suffering from heart diseases have been prescribed various drugs, including nitric supplements. "Nitric supplements convert into nitric oxide when consumed. It is used to relieve blood pressure. It facilitates slower blood flow through the veins and arteries that help people experiencing heart issues. Athletes also use nitric oxide to optimise their workout performance. However, any such medications or supplements have side effects.

The production of nitric oxide (by consumption of nitrate supplements) can result in the onset of migraine development." But there have been cases where people, who were neither suffering from heart problems nor were athletes, had migraines due to increased nitric oxide production even though they did not consume nitric supplements. "Could diet be the reason for this?" he asks.

Around 5% of migraine sufferers may experience headaches hours or even minutes after eating processed meat products. A "hot dog headache" has been coined to describe this type of headache. "Alcoholic beverages, processed meat, and aged cheese are among the most commonly reported dietary migraine causes. Caffeine deprivation, starvation, and dietary deficits are also thought to play a role," explains Fernando.

Salt formula and nitrate molecules are added to preserved food and meat to increase their shelf life. These foods, when consumed, can result in the release of nitric oxide. "It depends upon the gut bacterial composition. If our gut has bacteria that translates nitrate molecules into nitric oxide, it can lead to migraines and headaches," says Kumar.

Cost of convenience

Readymade, processed food and meat may be convenient and cheaper, but it comes at the cost of your health. There are umpteen health implications of the consumption of frozen foods and meat. Listing a few of them, Shweta Mahadik, clinical nutritionist, Fortis Hospital, Kalyan, says, "The consumption of processed food and meat is harmful to health.

The ingredients that are used in frozen foods are not the same as those present in freshly prepared meals. Processed foods are rich in sodium, sugar, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), nitrates, etc. They also contain palm oil which is harmful trans-fat. Preservatives such as corn syrup, starch etc., are made up of glues which lead to the carcinogenic effect." Nowadays, many food companies use MSG in ready-to-eat items, which increase the risk of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, blood pressure, obesity in the young generation.

Nitrites, a category of preservatives that includes potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite, are also probable causes. "Sausages, ham, bacon, and lunch meats like salami and bologna are examples of processed meats that include nitrites. These preservatives stop hazardous germs like Clostridium botulinum from growing. They also contribute to the flavour of processed meats by preserving their colour," adds Fernando.

Mahadik, on the other hand, points to MSG that is the main active ingredient in soy sauce, processed meats, etc. and can spark a migraine within 20 minutes of consumption. "MSG affects your blood vessels and the nerve signals in your brain. These result in throbbing headaches that can last for days. Nitrates and nitrites found in cured and processed meats enter in your system and cause blood vessels to swell, which can start a headache," she says. Some studies found that regular consumption of MSG-rich food can cause gastritis, gastric and duodenal ulcers.

Health impact

But it is not just migraine that can be triggered by consuming such nitrate molecules (or protein) through processed meat. "The impact of nitric oxide goes beyond migraine. Depending upon gut bacteria composition, consumption of preserved foods can result in the release of ammonia gas which can be pro-inflammatory and directly damage your gut lining. It also results in the onset of chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease," says Kumar.

Dr Rakesh Patel, Consultant Gastroenterology and Hepatobiliary Sciences at Fortis Hospital, cites how the dietary changes have brought about corresponding changes in the health condition of people in the Indian subcontinent. "Preserved and processed foods contain chemicals, especially salt, acid, preservatives, and food additives, that can alter gut microbiota and lead to diseases. There is an epidemic of fatty liver disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and inflammatory bowel disease. Even in developing countries like ours, the numbers of people affected are on the rise due to changing food habits, and so-called 'healthy foods' also contain microbiota changing chemicals that lead to such diseases," says Dr Patel.

Kumar adds that the gut microbiome is connected with our brain (Gut-Brain Axis) through the vagus nerve, so various body systems have a complex, symbiotic, and interconnected relationship. "Our gut microbiome plays a vital role in our neuro health either by communicating with the brain through the vagus nerve or producing various neurotransmitters. To reduce the pain of migraine linked headaches, most of us generally resort to medications, drugs and antibiotics, which further amplifies gut microbiome imbalance. Altering one's diet (doing away with processed meats), including probiotics in the diet can go a long way in overcoming this painful headache," Kumar suggests.

Course correction

The human body consists of 20,000 to 25,000 human genes, while microbes living in our gut constitute 2 to 20 million genes of their own, thereby making us only 1% humans epigenetically! "Any two people have 99% genes in common. As such, we cannot change our genes, but we can change how those genes are expressed," says Kumar.

A gut microbiome test helps identify different species of micro-organisms in the gut through analysis of faecal samples. Based on it, the nutritionist can make necessary recommendations to one's dietary practices. "Changing the balance of gut composition and promoting more balanced flora of gut microbes can reduce our consumption of medicines for temporary relief from migraines," says Kumar.

Fernando advises that if one feels that particular foods are causing migraines, one should consider eliminating them from the diet to see if it helps. "A nutritionist can help you figure out if any of the things one eats is associated with migraines, and based on it, prescribe treatment. In some people, supplements like coenzyme Q10 and butterbur may help to minimise the frequency of migraines," he says.

Mahadik advises one to check food labels carefully. "We generally see kids often needing a snack during the day. Rather than giving kids sweets or salty snacks, opt for healthier options like nuts and oilseeds, cheese, yoghurt (preferably unsweetened), chopped or dried fruits, boiled eggs, or other locally available healthy options like kurmura, makhana, puffed jowar, puffed bajra, khakara, etc.

These food options are nutritious, more filling, and help build up healthy eating habits that last a lifetime," she says. Patel couldn't agree more with her. Every individual has a genetic makeup, which can alter the gut microbiota and lead to various diseases. "So, junk the fast and frozen foods and opt for fresh and healthy foods," he adds.

According to Fernando, "The key thing in the future would be a blood test, microbiome test, genetic test, removing the foods that are toxic for one's body and adding foods that take the microbiome and body's nutritional requirements move to the next level."

Succinctly explaining the current healthcare system, Kumar says how the current model is solving the wrong thing - symptom management. "Here's a symptom, here's a drug for that. It's like any e-commerce or marketplace model. In our fight against chronic diseases, we need to recruit an invisible army of microbes living in our gut to learn how our body works, how to run it optimally and how to fix issues sustainably without any collateral damage when something goes wrong."

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