Highly Processed Foods Shown to Increase Risk of IBS

Have you ever been at the grocery store, taken a glance at the ingredients on those cookies you were about to put in your cart and felt like you were learning to read all over again? You are not alone. Butylated hydroxyanisole, propyl paraben, sodium benzoate, are these food ingredients or a list of chemicals for your chemistry lab experiment?

A group of French researchers recently analyzed dietary data for 33,343 eligible participants and their consumption of foods including fresh and unprocessed foods, minimally processed (such as canned fruits and vegetables) and ultra-processed products containing those hard to pronounce food additives and preservatives. The study, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, revealed that adults with diets high in these ultra-processed foods and beverages were at a higher risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome and concomitant functional dyspepsia.

Within the sample group, consumption of ultra-processed foods accounted for one third of total energy intake. These numbers are even higher in the United States where processed foods make up almost 58% of energy intake. Living alone, lower income, higher body-mass index, and lower physical activity were all found to be associated with consumption of these products.

Generally, ultra-processed foods are very low in fiber compared to whole, unprocessed foods. Researchers believe this is likely a contributing factor to the higher rate of digestive symptoms in individuals with a high consumption of these foods.

While it may be unrealistic to eliminate processed foods completely, we can certainly cut back on our intake of these foods. Whole foods are generally more nutritious, higher in fiber, and lack the added sugar, salt, and preservatives found in processed foods. Here are some tips that will set you on the right path to eating more whole, nutrient rich, and unprocessed foods.

  1. Aim for one meal a day with no processed ingredients. Once you have mastered this, slowly start making changes to your other meals and aim for all unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients.
  2. Shop mostly in the perimeter of your grocery store. If you think about how most stores are usually set-up, the perimeter tends to be where you find your fresh and unprocessed items such as produce, fish, meats, dairy and grains. The center of your grocery store tends to contain all the highly processed foods.
  3. Find new recipes with 5 ingredients or less. Not only will this cut down on the amount of processed ingredients, it will make cooking faster and easier!
  4. Plan out your meals for the week. Having a plan and properly stocking your kitchen with the ingredients for your meals will help prevent unplanned trips to the grocery store or drive through to pick up a quick lunch.
  5. Start swapping out your foods. Set realistic goals for yourself such as removing a couple of processed foods from your grocery cart each week. Fast and drastic changes are generally short lived. Aim for slow gradual improvements that you will make into long lasting habits.

Now that you are armed with the information and tips you need to start improving your eating pattern, what will be your first grocery cart upgrade?


Schnabel, Laure, et al. “Association Between Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: Results From the French NutriNet-Santé Cohort.” The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41395-018-0137-1.

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