Health officials say the number of Americans dealing with some form of inflammatory bowel disease or IBD has skyrocketed over the last two decades.

While research has looked at diets high in fat for the cause, a new study finds sugar may play a key role in worsening stomach issues.

A team from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center says high-sugar diets damage the lining of a person’s gut and cause more severe cases of colitis.

Colitis is a major public health problem in the U.S. and in other Western countries, says study leader Hasan Zaki in a university release. This is very important from a public health point of view.

Researchers say colitis is a type of IBD which causes abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea, and rectal bleeding. Overall, the number of Americans dealing with IBD has jumped from two million in 1999 to three million in 2015. This also includes cases of Crohn’s disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study examined what makes a Western diet so problematic for gut health. These menus are typically full of fat, sugar, and animal protein.

While high-fat intake has been linked to the onset of IBD, Zaki says sugar’s role has remained controversial among scientists. The new study finds the growing use of glucose in food production may be doing just as much harm.

The UT Southwestern team points to the development of high fructose corn syrup by the food industry in the 1960’s. They say this glucose-filled product has been increasingly used to sweeten drinks and some foods since its creation.

The incidence of IBD has also increased in Western countries, particularly among children, over this same period,” Zaki and his team adds.

Zaki says his team will now look at how high-sugar intake affects the onset and symptoms of obesity, fatty liver disease, and degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

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