When you don’t know any different, it can be hard to fathom that the Western diet you’ve eaten your entire life can be wreaking havoc on your health but that’s exactly what’s happening. The American standard diet is filled with all kinds of foods and ingredients that have been directly linked to causing a vast array of physical and mental health symptoms, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer. So before you go out and grab your next fast food meal or take a bite out of a sugary snack, you may want to learn about what these common items in the Western diet are doing to your health. In this article, you’ll learn about all of the risks and dangers associated with the foods and eating habits common in the United States and most importantly, simple ways you can clean up your diet to improve your health.
What is the Western Diet?
What is commonly referred to as the “Western diet” is a Standard American Diet (SAD) that is generally characterized by large amounts of pre-packaged foods, red meat, processed meat, sugary drinks, candy, fried foods, conventionally-raised animal products, refined grains and sweets. Intake of pasture-raised animal products, fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are typically low and eating habits are particularly poor and consist of doing things, such as overeating and late-night snacking.
But what does all of this mean?
Research has found that the Western diet high in unhealthy fats, sodium and sugar, three major components linked to causing a vast array of health conditions. It’s also filled with all kinds of preservatives, toxins and chemicals, such as benzoates, nitrites and sulphites that really (should) have no place in your diet, as they too are linked to causing many harmful effects. For example, one of the most dangerous effects of preservatives used in food is their ability to turn into carcinogen agents, which form cancer-causing agents.
Put all of this together and the Western diet isn’t only harmful due to what it contains, but it’s equally as harmful and perhaps even more so because of what it lacks.
The Potential Risks Associated With The Western Diet
From physical health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, the Western diet has been linked to causing a vast array of health concerns that run throughout the entire body. It’s been listed as a risk factor for multiple non-communicable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, colonic cancer and coronary heart disease. And that’s only to name a few. Even more shocking, research has found that approximately 1 in 5 deaths in the world can be attributed to the Western diet.
But why, you ask? Let’s take a look…
A Diet High in Ultra-Processed Foods is Dangerous For Many Reasons
Convenient food is incredibly popular in the Western diet. Whether it’s microwaveable dinners, breakfast cereals, mass-produced bread or fast food, studies have found that ultra-processed foods make up a significant portion of the average American’s caloric intake. While the convenience of such foods is nice, it comes with a price, as multiple studies have found highly processed foods to increase your risk of:
- Heart disease
- Colon cancer
- All-cause mortality
Ultra-processed foods are believed to be so harmful for your health, mainly due to the chemicals used to enhance flavour, texture and taste. All of these things can also lead to overeating. Even “healthier” alternatives, such as artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers used in highly processed foods have shown to have a negative impact on your microbiome, which increases inflammation and all of the risks associated with chronic inflammation. This includes stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and many additional health issues.
Low Fibre Equals Poor Gut Health
The Western diet is also fairly low in fibre due to the lack of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. This affects your bowel movements and the balance of your gut microbiome needed for immune, metabolic and gastrointestinal health. And as mentioned previously, a lack of dietary fibre can lead to increased inflammation due to the lack of nourishing cells in the gut lining.
Too Much Red and Processed Meat Can Cause Cancer
One thing the Western diet doesn’t lack is red meat and processed meat. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good thing as there is significant evidence showing the potential dangers of these types of foods. For example, processed meats like ham and sausages increase your risk of developing cancer. Red meat does as well. Although, the risk is slightly less. Studies have also found that processed meats contain carcinogenic, which is cancer-causing. Red meats have this chemical as well.
Refined Carbohydrates Lack Nutritional Value and Can Cause Metabolic Disorders
Another popular choice for many people following a Western diet is refined carbs, such as white bread, regular pasta, white rice and sugary breakfast cereals, over nutritious wholegrains. The problem with these is that they are stripped of the nutritional value found in the bran and germ that make whole grains so beneficial to your health. This leaves only the endosperm, which is nutritionally inferior.
In addition to not providing you with the full potential of nutrition, refined carbs metabolize much faster than natural whole grains. This can lead to spikes and crashes in your blood sugar levels. Experiencing these spikes and crashes frequently can increase your risk of developing metabolic disorders, such as type 2 diabetes, as your body becomes resistant to insulin.
Trigger Addictive-Like Behaviours That Change the Brain
Due to the highly palatable foods that make up the Standard American Diet, it has been shown to trigger eating addictive-like behaviors, such as seeking and bingeing food and high fat and sugar intake, both of which cause long-term changes in the brain. For example, your dopamine levels (happy hormones) increase when consuming food on a typical Western Diet, but the expression of dopamine receptors decrease, similar to what is experienced with drug and substance abuse.
A dysfunction in the hippocampus has also been linked to the Western Diet, which affects your memory, your ability to make decisions and other cognitive processes.
Can Lead to an HPA Dysregulation
An HPA dysregulation has been associated with many foods that make up the Western diet, which has also been linked to chronic stress and other psychiatric disorders. As such, many studies have linked the Standard American diet to causing emotional disorders, anxiety, depression and chronic stress.
Affects Memory, Motivation, Emotions and Learning
Studies found that it only takes one week of eating a diet high in fat and sugar to affect the part of the brain that is responsible for your emotions, learning, memory and motivation called the hippocampus.
The diet has been shown to affect one’s self-control and enhance the likelihood of overeating, thus leading to obesity and other related conditions.
Increased Risk of Irreversible Liver Damage
Speaking of insulin resistance and gut health, liver damage is another risk associated with the Western diet. This is because of the high amount of fat, sugar and cholesterol in the foods commonly eaten, all of which are all main factors behind liver.
Can Lead to Heart Disease
Some experts have gone as far to say that the Western diet causes a third of all heart attack deaths across the globe. Studies have found that the typical diet pattern in America that is characterized by high amounts of salty snacks, processed meats, sweets and soft drinks is associated with severe coronary artery disease. It’s also been linked to increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes and other related health conditions.
Simple Ways to Clean Up Your Diet
Improving your diet and maintaining a healthier diet moving forward can drastically decrease your probability of experiencing the risks mentioned above. Now, you don’t have to completely forgo the Western diet either; a few simple changes can go a long way.
Here are some quick tips to get you started on a healthier, cleaner eating pattern:
- Reduce or Eliminate Processed Foods: Packaged, pre-made or preserved foods are the root of all evil. Reducing your intake or eliminating them altogether will quickly boost your health and decrease associated risks. Aim to have more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead of processed foods, and make a meal plan for the week so you can start prepping early and reduce the temptation to grab something quick.
- Take on the Mediterranean Approach: The Mediterranean diet is recognized as being the healthiest way to eat, as it consists largely of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds and extra virgin olive oil. You can switch to this diet pattern completely for maximum potential or take a few notes from the cookbooks.
- Have Scheduled Meals: Having set times for your breakfast, lunch and dinner each day can help to reduce snacking on unhealthier treats and decrease overeating as a whole. This can lead to weight loss and ultimately, a lower risk of health conditions associated with excess weight.
- Drink More Water: Not only is water essential for staying hydrated throughout the day, it will also help you steer clear of those sugary drinks that are common in the Western diet (and that have many associated health risks attached to them).
- Choose Whole Grain Over White Bread: This simple switch will ensure you get the full nutritional value of whole grain, and not just the endosperm found in white bread.
- Cook At Home More: Make it an event! Turn on some music, get the kids to help out, and start cooking at home more often. This will also help you steer clear of the high calories associated with restaurant foods.
- Eat Less Starchy Veggies: Swap out starchy ingredients, such as potatoes, corn and beans for non-starchy vegetables, such as celery, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli and peppers.
- Reduce Red and Processed Meats: When it comes to meat, try to eliminate the red and processed kinds. Some excellent and healthier alternatives are chicken, turkey and fish.
As the saying goes, you are what you eat. With the massive amount of studies that have linked the Western diet to a vast array of physical and mental health conditions, the risk simply isn’t worth it. With a few simple changes in your daily eating pattern, you can start improving your diet and transforming your health.