The Western Diet: 21st Centuries slow killer
Our gut-supportive habits and foods somehow flew out of the window, once the Western diet walked in through the door. Slow-cooked stews, organ meats (very cheap), vegetables, fermented foods and kefir have been replaced with fast food hamburgers, hotdogs, processed foods and gigantic tubs of ice creams and sodas.
So what does the famous Western diet consists of?
Refined carbohydrates: these include white bread, pasta, rice, and breakfast cereals. Carbohydrates like these can be quickly broken down into sugars in the body that can instantly be absorbed into the bloodstream and spike up insulin.
Sugar: white sugar in biscuits, cakes, breakfast cereals, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to pretty much everything else. What’s worse is the food industry took the word ‘healthy’ as a complete joke and made us believe that ‘healthy’ muesli bars and cereals are ‘healthy’. Yet, many times their sugar content is through the roof. The recommendation for added sugar per day is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. One bowl of Kellogg’s Special K contains 17g per 100g and therefore, get ready of spending rest your day after that watching your sugar intake to stick to your limit. High-sugar diets have been linked with an impoverished microbiome (1).
Trans fats: commercial and highly processed cakes, biscuits, crackers, muffins, ready-made frosting.. and in most margarine and low-fat spreads. Trans fats are produced when oils are heated repeatedly to high temperatures. A great example is deep frying. Ever wondered why chippy food is unhealthy? One of the many reasons is TRANS FATS. You need to be careful as these may come under different names, such as, ‘partially hydrogenated oils’. An excess of these fats in the diet raises lipid levels, inflammation markers in the blood and excessive amounts may not be compatible with a healthy microbiome. Individuals consuming a high-fat diet has been linked with bacterial diversity in the gut (2).
Artificial sweeteners: a true challenge to find processed food without one! From aspartame to sucralose and saccharine, these naughty sweeteners are now available in nearly everything: soft drinks, baked goods (a great trans and artificial cocktail) candy, puddings, canned foods, jams, jellies, dairy products…
Alcohol: excessive alcohol consumption has been linked with the development of alcoholic liver disease (ALD) but also dysbiotic changes in the intestinal microbiota(3).
The evolution of diet
As we look ahead to 2050, when we’ll need to feed two billion more people, the question of which diet is best has taken on new necessity. The diet we choose to eat in the near future will drastically affect not only our health and wellbeing but also the planet we live on (4). Our current diet revolves around meat, dairy and grains, and due to the increased demand, the suppliers are forced to use an increased number of pesticides, antibiotics and all kinds of chemicals.
Well ‘Hello there’ Western diet!
But how did we got to this point?
About 10,000 years ago before the agriculture was developed, we got our food by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Now, only 250,000 people (.005%) of the world’s population live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A diet consisted of wild meat and fish, picking own wild fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds all provided by themselves and not by your local supermarket chain. This form of eating and lifestyle followed for millions of years have changed significantly just within short 10, 000 years. (5)
An epidemic of several negative effects, including complex immune disorders such as inflammatory bowel diseases, type 1 diabetes, liver diseases, obesity, under-nutrition (yes, it’s a complete irony that some of the largest individuals, are largely deficient in a variety of essential nutrients), type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders. Oh, and let’s not forget about the increased prevalence of cancer.
Furthermore, the Western diet isn’t just associated with obesity and related metabolic diseases, but also an inflammation that arises from both structural and behavioural changes in the resident microbiome. The processed foods create such an unfriendly environment in the gut, that it consequently promotes a diverse range of inflammatory diseases. (6) But, let’s get back to our hunter-gatherers.
Significant research has been conducted in Tanzania, with a tribe called Hadza. The Hadza tribe have lived for 1000’s of years in the East African Rift Valley ecosystem. Their microbiome consists of incredibly high taxonomic diversity of microbes, indicating great ecosystem stability and flexibility. Their diverse microbiome has shown to withstand the presence of parasites and pathogens and responds well with varied diet due to their seasonally dependent food supply (7). A reduction in this diversity has compromised our response to selective pressures and therefore, made us less adaptive to our environment. Certain technological interventions, such as hyper-sanitation, consumption of refined foods and increased use of antibiotics, have dramatically altered the functional role of our microbiome (7).
In other words, our ‘cool’ Westernised way of life of being overly clean and hygienic and increased consumption of processed foods purchased in our supermarkets, or even worse ordered online from the comfort of our homes and delivered directly to our kitchen is slowly killing us. By altering our microbiome this way, we are becoming more vulnerable to the outside world, gradually decreasing the effectiveness of our immune system and therefore, struggling to fight diseases (7).
What can I do to increase my microbiome’s diversity?
Avoid Western diet! Well, it’s a good way to start. Depending on multiple factors, including how long you consumed a Western diet, how often you were prescribed antibiotics, how often you drink alcohol and how much, all need to be considered when deciding to heal your gut and increase your diversity. It is a health journey and it surely needs to become your lifestyle. There is no quick fix or a pill to take to multiply your little buggers living inside your gut.
This journey can be for some overwhelming and stressful and that could be possibly worse for your gut than the Western diet alone. Therefore, it can be beneficial and highly effective for some to find a professional health cheerleader that will be cheering you on and guiding you towards the new, healthy you.