High-fat foods may help rid body of intestinal parasite, study finds

FILE IMAGE - Hamburger and fries in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Jan. 5, 2023. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A new study suggests that a high-fat diet allows the immune system to eliminate a parasitic worm that’s known to cause lasting infections in the large intestine and is a major cause of illness and death throughout the developing world. 

Parasitic worms affect up to a billion people, particularly in developing nations with poor sanitation, according to researchers from Lancaster University and the University of Manchester in the U.K., who were behind the new study.

One of these parasites, known as "whipworm," can cause intestinal disease. Those with an infection can experience frequent, painful bowel movements that can contain blood, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. 

The new study, published on Jan. 20 in the journal "Mucosal Immunology," focused on how worm infection and western diets — often highly-processed foods containing high levels of refined sugars and fat — interact. 

"Just like the UK, the cheapest diets are often high in fat and at-risk communities to whipworm are increasingly utilizing these cheap diets," lead author Dr. Evelyn Funjika, formerly at Manchester and now at the University of Zambia, said in a statement. "Therefore, how worm infection and western diets interact is a key unknown for developing nations."

In order to study how nutrition can impact parasite worm infection, the team used a mouse model, Trichuris muris, which is closely related to human whipworm. 

Previous research has suggested that immune responses that expel the parasite rely on white blood cells called T-helper 2 cells, specialized in eliminating parasites from the digestive system. The new study showed that a high-fat diet increases a molecule on these help cells called ST2, increasing the response to rid parasitic worms from the large intestinal lining. 

"We were quite surprised by what we found during this study. High-fat diets are mostly associated with increased pathology during disease," study co-author Dr. John Worthington with the Department of Biomedical and Life Science at Lancaster University, said in a statement. "However, in the case of whipworm infection, this high-fat diet licenses the T-helper cells to make the correct immune response to expel the worm."

Highly-processed foods with high levels of sugar, sodium, and fat often make the food taste better, but can lead to serious health issues, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The study was also conducted in mice, and not humans.

Given this, Worthington added caution to the findings and highlighted previous research showing how weight loss can also help.

"Before you order that extra take-away, we have previously published that weight loss can aid the expulsion of a different gut parasite worm," Worthington said. "So these results may be context specific, but what is really exciting is the demonstration of how diet can profoundly alter the capacity to generate protective immunity and this may give us new clues for treatments for the millions who suffer from intestinal parasitic infections worldwide."

Worldwide, whipworm infection occurs more frequently in areas with tropical weather, where access to personal hygiene and proper sanitation practices are not available, according to the CDC. 

In 2002, the most recent year the agency’s data highlights, the estimated number of people infected with whipworm was 1 billion.

This story was reported from Cincinnati.