A new study has found that mice fed with a high-sugar diet developed severe colitis (inflammation of the colon).

Researchers examined the large intestines of the mice and found more bacteria that damaged the gut’s protective mucosal layer.

Lead author Dr. Hasan Zaki of UT Southwestern Medical Center said, “Colitis is a major public health problem in the U.S. and in other Western countries. This is very important from a public health point of view.”

The findings of the study were published Wednesday in the medical journal Science Translational Medicine.

The symptoms of colitis include abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea, and rectal bleeding.

In the United States, the number of adults suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including colitis, increased to 3 million in 2015 from 2 million in 1999, according to the CDC.

Dr. Zaki explained that colitis has also beginning to show up in children, who historically did not suffer from it.

As the prevalence of the disease is much higher in Western countries, the researchers looked at the potential risk of eating a Western-style diet that includes high fat, high sugar, and high animal protein.

High-fat diets do trigger IBD but the role of a high-sugar diet has been more controversial, according to Dr. Zaki.

The UT Southwestern researchers found that mice developed more severe symptoms of colitis when they were given a diet rich in sugar. They found that sugary foods damaged the gut’s protective mucosal layer.

The authors wrote, “Due to the erosion of the mucus layer, gut bacteria were in close proximity with the epithelial layer of the large intestine in glucose-treated mice. Breaching of the epithelial barrier is the key initiating event of intestinal inflammation.”

“Our study clearly shows that you really have to mind your food,” Dr. Zaki said. The researchers are now planning to study whether high sugar consumption affects the development of obesity, fatty liver disease, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.