What is the western diet?
The western diet has become quite popular all over the world. However, despite its popularity and consumption by many, health experts are cautioning people to move away from this eating plan. But why? Is the western pattern diet as bad as some claim, or are they just exaggerating the fact? Find out the adverse effects of this eating plan and why people should be careful about a western diet.
Also known as the western pattern diet or a standard western diet, this eating plan is described as being dominated by convenient and highly processed foods. But what does this mean exactly? A standard western diet is a modern-day diet that involves high consumption of refined grains, red and processed meats, desserts, sweets, and other high-sugar foods, high-fat dairy products, fried foods, as well as pre-packaged foods.
What is the history of the western diet?
For anyone interested in how the western diet came about, here is a little background information for you.
According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the beginnings of the western diet can be traced to as far back as 10,000 years ago, when the aspect of agriculture and animal husbandry – the practice of breeding, farming, and care of farm animals – began. These changes gradually happened between the Neolithic (a.k.a. New stone age period) and Industrial Periods (the industrial revolution). With them came significant alterations in the environment, lifestyle conditions, and the human diet. While, for the most part, these changes altered the lives of our ancestors for the better, they brought in the side effect of food processing, which changed our diets in a bad way.
Food processing altered the following 7 crucial nutritional characteristics of the ancestral diet (18):
- Glycemic load
- Fatty acid composition
- Macronutrient composition
- Micronutrient density
- Acid-base balance
- Sodium-potassium ratio
- Fiber content
How is the western diet impacting our health?
If you are wondering why western diets are usually considered unhealthy, it is because this eating plan has been linked to an increase in obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and other chronic illnesses.
Here are the research and science behind it:
Increased cases of obesity and weight-related deaths
According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in the United States alone, 65% of all adults above 20 years old are either obese or overweight, and this contributes to over 280,184 deaths per year. All related in a way or another to being severely overweight.
It should also be noted that the western pattern diet does not just affect adults. It can also cause obesity in children and teenagers, negatively impacting their lives. A study published in 2015 involving Lebanese teenagers aged 13 to 19 years old showed that all the teens who consumed a standard western diet, which was characterized by high consumption of red meat, eggs, and fast-food sandwiches had an increased risk of overweight, as compared to their counterparts who ate a traditional Lebanese diet, which was characterized by a higher intake of fruits and vegetables, legumes and fish (5).
A standard western diet may lead to metabolic syndrome
This eating plan is said to negatively affect the Arcuate nucleus and POMC neurons, which are found in the brain. The Arcuate nucleus and POMC neurons play a role on your appetite (15) and regulate your metabolism and reproduction (19), respectively. When the Arcuate nucleus and POMC neurons are damaged, it may lead to metabolic syndrome.
This syndrome is an illness caused by the combined factors of increased blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, excess body fat, especially around the waist, and abnormally high cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Once all the above clusters of conditions occur together, they then increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes, thus causing metabolic syndrome (16).
Disrupts your circadian rhythm
The circadian rhythm is your body’s 24 hours body clock that controls your daily schedule for sleep and wakefulness, among other things (6). While the sleep-wake cycle can be disrupted by many things, including stress and other mental health conditions, erratic work schedules, medication, travel over different time zones, and poor sleeping habits, it has been suggested that western diet and eating late at night can lead to the same outcome (25).
Disrupted sleep and circadian rhythm lead to many metabolic issues such as:
- Reduced brain glucose disposal
- Reduced resting metabolic rate
- An impaired immune system
- Impaired pancreatic function
- Hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, and more.
Poor sleep also leads to poor dietary choices (7), which means that if you are consuming a western diet, you are more likely to reach for foods that are higher in simple refined carbs and trans fat. All of which can lead to weight gain. It also leads to increased cortisol levels in the body. An increase of this hormone in the body can increase your appetite, making you eat more, causing undesired weight gain (23).
Increased cancer risk
A scientific review published in 2016 showed that people who ate on a western pattern diet significantly increased their chances of getting prostate cancer as compared to those who consumed a healthy diet pattern (4). This diet has also been associated with an increased risk (and sometimes the reoccurrence) of other types of cancers such as the colon (26), breast (3), pancreatic cancer (9).
Increases the risk of psoriasis
Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease that causes your skin cells to multiply up to 10 times faster than what is considered to be normal. This then leads to red, itchy, scaly patches that mostly occur on the knees, elbows, trunk, and scalp.
A study done on mice by the University of California showed that short-term exposure to the Western diet (about 4 weeks) can induce psoriasis. However, psoriasis is not the only skin disease that can be caused by the western diet. Since this eating plan affects your skin’s immunity, it may lead to an increased risk of skin inflammation (27).
Why should people stop eating a western diet?
If all of the above factors have not convinced you of why people should be more careful about a western diet, then maybe this point will. Your body needs a healthy immune system because it protects us from illnesses by creating a barrier that stops antigens from entering the body. If by chance, the antigens get through this barrier, the immune system then acts by producing white blood cells and other chemicals and proteins to attack and destroy these foreign disease-causing substances (13).
A bad eating plan is one of the quickest ways for you to ruin your immune system. Although reduced immunity is mostly related to people who live in poverty and are malnourished, a higher class of people who consume a western pattern diet are also at risk of reduced immunity (12). As per the western diet definition, this is a diet that is characterized by an increased intake of saturated and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, reduced intake of omega-3 fatty acids, overconsumption of salt, and too much refined sugar.
While all these factors are known for their negative effects on your heart and kidney health, as well as obliterating your waistline, many people forget that these factors can severely reduce your immunity; making you susceptible to diseases.
Here is how:
1. Nutrient deficiency
This occurs when the body does not absorb or get from food the necessary amount of a nutrient. Malnutrition can occur in a western diet because the foods mostly consumed on this eating plan have been stripped of their nutrients. Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies include iron, iodine, Vitamin D, calcium, Vitamin B12, magnesium, and Vitamin A deficiency. Malnutrition leads to a slew of illnesses such as anemia, reduced reproductive capacity, nerve and muscle damage, dementia, eye problems, tiredness, osteoporosis, among other diseases (1).
2. Reduces white blood cells
The main and most basic function of the while blood cells is to increase your body’s immune system and target and destroy any disease-causing cells in it (24). Obese individuals who consume a standard western diet tend to have fewer than normal white blood cells, meaning that they are not able to fight off diseases as effectively as healthier individuals. To make matters worse, whatever white blood cells they have do not act as fast as they should. Due to reduced phagocytosis capability, they take longer to fully engulf and destroy disease-causing cells and particles (10).
3. Increases sugar intake
Simple sugar, such as table white sugar, is known to reduce white blood cell phagocytosis and possibly increase inflammatory cytokine markers in the blood. Cytokines are the body’s signaling molecules that mediate and regulate immunity, inflammation, and hematopoiesis (8). A diet high in sugar also causes weight gain, puts you at a high risk of heart disease and type II diabetes, may increase acne and skin aging, and could lead to a higher risk of cancer and psychological struggles such as depression (2).
4. Increases salt intake
According to the CDC, the recommended daily salt intake per day should be less than 2300 milligrams (17). Ideally, it should be no more than 1500 mg per day. However, thanks to the western diet, which is quite high in salt, most adults tend to end up consuming an average of more than 3400 mg each day (11). A diet high in salt may increase your blood pressure and further increase your risk of stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, and kidney disease.
5. Increases the consumption of trans-fat
Trans fat and saturated fatty acids are bad for your heart health. This is because they raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. An increase of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream increases your risk of developing heart disease, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases (21).
The western diet and obesity: How do they relate?
It is no secret that people who are against a western diet, such as those who adhere to a paleolithic eating pattern, state that this modern eating plan has led to a slew of civilization diseases. Some of these are diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and many more, which were not known to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Apart from these diseases, obesity is another undesirable side effect of the standard western diet.
Obesity is nothing new. Although it has been around for many decades, it has grown to a point where it is now considered a worldwide pandemic condition. Obesity stems from weight gain, which occurs due to a surplus of energy intake compared to energy expenditure – eating more calories than you burn in a day. The excess calories that are not burned are then stored as fat in the body, leading to an ever-increasing waistline. Failure to curb this behavior then leads to chronic energy intake, which will make you overweight and eventually obese (14).
As seen by the western diet definition, this eating plan relies heavily on saturated salt, sugar, and refined carbs. When ingested, refined carbs are digested faster than their unrefined counterparts. They then lead to short bursts of energy, and once they are over, will require you to eat again to gain more energy. This leads to eating more than your recommended calorie intake, which eventually causes weight gain (22).
When you are constantly eating, your insulin levels remain high throughout much of the day. These high levels prevent fat from being broken down for energy and are then stored in the body. If you continue to constantly eat, your stored fat levels will continue to accumulate in your body. This could also lead to the development of insulin hypersecretion and hyperinsulinemia that contributes significantly to accelerated weight gain (14).
Western diet vs. Eastern diet: Which one is better?
As we have seen above, the western diet, which is notorious for its high consumption of red meat, dairy products, processed and artificially sweetened foods, and salt, with minimal intake of fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, and whole grains, has a lot of unfavorable side effects to your overall health. However, is an eastern diet, such as the Mediterranean diet any better?
Unlike a standard western diet, the Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high intake of olive oil, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and cereals, legumes, fish, and nuts. Foods such as red meat, dairy products, and sweets, as well as drinks such as red wine, are usually consumed in very low amounts. This diet also relies heavily on locally grown, fresh, and minimally processed foods.
So does this Mediterranean diet have an advantage over the western diet? Yes, it does.
Studies done in Greece and other European countries have yielded the following results:
In Greece, a study for 44 months revealed that those who stuck to a Mediterranean diet were 33% less likely to die from heart disease and 24% less likely to die from any other causes during the period of the study. Another study, this time with patients with heart disease, showed that those who switched to an Mediterranean diet decreased their death rate by 27% (20).
Lower trans fats equal to higher chances of survival and longevity
A study involving older adults aged 60 years and above revealed that the use of olive oil in cooking helped increase their chances of survival. These men and women could also live for longer. Another study done in over 10 European countries revealed that these men and women between the ages of 70 and 90 years old had a 23% reduction in the overall mortality rate. Those who incorporated exercise and stayed away from alcohol and tobacco increased this number to up to 50% (20).
A small study done on patients in Sweden showed that adherence to this eating plan for three months can reduce the symptoms of arthritis (20).
This is a progressive mental illness that causes brain cells to degenerate and die. A study done on 2258 Americans showed that consuming an eastern diet as opposed to a western one decreased the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40% (20).
Cardiovascular diseases and cancer
- An eight-years study done on 44,875 American men, aged between the ages of 40 to 75 years, revealed that since they were following an eastern diet none of them had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or cancer (20).
In light of this, the debate on the western diet vs. Mediterranean diet seems to highly favor the latter. This eating plan shows a lower risk of stroke, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, cancer, and other illnesses. Moreover, it is mostly attributed to its high levels of fiber, vitamins, omega 3-fatty acids, and moderate consumption of alcohol (20).
How to get away from a western diet?
Following the principles of a Mediterranean diet is one of the best ways to get away from a standard western diet and improve your eating plan, overall health, and life.
Here are some foods examples that you should consume to help you out:
1. Leafy greens
Such collard greens, kale, bok choy, spinach, Romaine lettuce, Swiss chard, and cabbage. They are low in carbs and calories while being loaded with fiber and important micronutrients. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts are also a great addition to your meal plan.
2. Legumes and lentils
These are full of protein and fiber, helping keep you fuller for longer and preventing unnecessary snacking, which causes weight gain and obesity.
3. Fatty/Oily fish and eggs
These are low in calories, full of omega 3 fatty acids, and fantastic sources of protein.
4. Lean meats and poultry
Always ask for the leanest cuts of meat, as they have less saturated fats.
5. Starchy vegetables
Such as sweet potatoes, carrots, corn, beets, sweet potatoes, plantains, butternut squash, and yams are a great part of a Mediterranean diet. They are amazing sources of nutrients and fiber.
6. Whole grains
Such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, millet, barley, and whole wheat bread and pasta. Unlike simple carbs, which are a huge part of the western diet, these unrefined carbs are naturally high in fiber and other nutrients.
Dairy is also another huge part of the western diet. You should consider alternating your dairy options with plant-based milk or low-fat options.
8. Fruits, nuts, and seeds
These should also be a part of your everyday meals.
The Bottom Line
Despite its popularity, the western diet seems to do more harm than good. In all honesty, this eating plan does not seem to have many advantages. It leads to an increased risk of obesity and chronic illnesses in human beings. Concerning this, it is advisable to go back to a more traditional and plant-based diet promoting the consumption of whole food. These diets offer more protection against illnesses and promote healthier eating habits. Supplement your diet with some exercise to double your results.