03/09/2015 10:26 am ET Updated May 09, 2015

Surprise! Guess What Can 'Thicken' Your Waist?

I'm a certified clinical nutritionist, and the first piece of advice I give my patients is: "Don't eat anything with a barcode." That's because when you eat natural foods, you eliminate thousands of potentially dangerous artificial colorings and flavorings from your diet.

And now there's another reason to go natural: You'll cut down on emulsifiers. A new study suggests that these chemicals, used to thicken and stabilize processed foods like ice cream and mayonnaise, can increase your risk of metabolic syndrome -- the first step toward diabetes -- and inflammatory bowel diseases.

In the study, researchers at Georgia State University fed two common emulsifiers to mice, without making any other changes to their diet. The mice, initially healthy, became obese and developed glucose intolerance. Studying a separate set of mice genetically engineered to be vulnerable to inflammatory gut diseases, the researchers found that the emulsifiers "promoted robust colitis."

While heavy doses of the chemicals caused the worst effects, lead author Andrew Gewirtz says that his team detected problems even when the mice received one-tenth of the concentration of emulsifiers the FDA allows in foods.

The researchers found evidence that emulsifiers break down the protective mucus that lines the gut, keeping bacteria from coming into contact with cells. Damage to this barrier, they say, may cause inflammation, which in turn can lead to metabolic changes.

The researchers say their findings suggest that "the broad use of emulsifying agents might be contributing to an increased societal incidence of obesity/metabolic syndrome and other chronic inflammatory diseases."

Study coauthor Benoit Chassaing told Fox News that the best way to reduce your exposure to emulsifiers is to eat more natural foods. "Packaged products are very loaded with emulsifiers and freshly cooked foods are not," he said, "so this is one of the simplest ways to avoid these agents."

The new findings are just one more example of why eating healthy means eating real, unprocessed foods. The more researchers study processed foods, the more dangers they're uncovering in all those artificial chemicals our bodies aren't designed to handle. Recently, they reported that artificial sweeteners may be linked to an increase in your risk of diabetes. Last week, they reported that the artificial caramel coloring in sodas may be linked to an increase in your risk of cancer. Now it's emulsifiers.

So I'll say it again: Step away from the bar codes. It may mean spending longer in the kitchen -- but isn't your health worth it?