New research indicates a link between high meat consumption and digestive issues like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in kids and teenagers.
The study was conducted at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and presented at the Digestive Disease Week conference. Gastrointestinal dietitian Nisha Thacker led the meta-analysis, which included 36 studies and a total of 6.4 million children.
Researchers looked at the factors influencing pediatric IBD. This involved analyzing the diets of people in various life stages, including the early feeding period (the first five years of life). In terms of digestive health, this period is the “most critical,” Thacker says, since this is when gut microbiome is taking shape.
Researchers found that young people fed on a Western dietary pattern (or Standard American Diet) in their early years were more likely to suffer from digestive problems. This diet tends to be rich in ultra-processed food, red meat, fried foods, dairy products, and sugary drinks. The study also found that those who ate a normal or high amount of vegetables had a lower chance of developing gastrointestinal conditions.
Thacker notes that while there did appear to be a link between the Western diet and childhood IBD, more research is needed into the impact of animal fat and protein on the condition.
What is IBD?
IBD refers to disorders involving the chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Namely, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Symptoms for both can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and fatigue. There is no known cure at this time.
The incidence and prevalence of IBD is on the rise around the world. Rates of childhood IBD are also increasing, with one in four cases being diagnosed before the age of 21. This is of particular concern because pediatric IBD can impact a child’s growth and puberty.
What causes IBD?
Research into the causes for IBD is ongoing, but experts have identified some modifiable risk factors, such as diet. Second-hand smoke exposure can also worsen digestive health, doubling the risk of IBD in children, according to Thacker’s research. Her findings also suggest that using antibiotics before the age of five triples a child’s risk of developing the condition.
Socioeconomic status may also play a role. Thacker found that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds had a 65 percent reduced risk of childhood IBD. Living with companion animals, or at least two siblings, was also associated with a lower risk of IBD. Growing up in a house with one toilet, as opposed to multiple, also appeared to reduce the risk.
These protective factors could be explained by excessive hygiene, which can reduce microbes in the environment, Thacker says. This may impact the development of a child’s microbiome, potentially making them more susceptible to health problems, including digestive issues.
“Many of these factors can impact our gut microbiota and may have a particularly strong effect in a child,” Thacker said in a statement. “A Western diet, high in sugars and ultra-processed foods and low in vegetables, is a prime example.”
As a result of her findings, Thacker advises families to feed children diets rich in vegetables and limit highly processed foods. She also recommends not worrying about excessive hygiene, and allowing kids to play outdoors and safely interact with companion animals.
In addition, she encourages parents to be mindful of antibiotic use in early childhood (though, of course, these may often be essential).
The new research is the latest, but not the first, to find a connection between plant-based food and improved health. The nutritional importance of plant foods is also driving research about how to best encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.