How Eating a Western Diet Impacts Your Health

As the name implies, the Westernized Diet is what most Americans and people in the Western world eat. However, the way people eat has changed more in the last century and a half than in the previous 10,000 years, and the current diet is unhealthy.

The Westernized diet versus a whole food diet

Processed grains, refined oils, unhealthy fats, sugar, salt, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives dominate the Western diet. In other words, it’s overloaded with processed foods and very few fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-rich foods. In short, the Westernized diet is responsible for obesity, poor nutrition, and a slew of health problems.

Let’s compare the Western diet, also known as the Standard American Diet (SAD) with one of the most well-researched, whole food-based diets — the Mediterranean diet.

The Western diet contains highly processed foods loaded with artificial sweeteners, additives, high amounts of sugar, and unhealthy fats. As an example, a meal would consist of a burger with cheese on white buns, french fries, perhaps a salad, a soda or coffee, and a slice of cake for dessert. This meal is high in refined grains and unhealthy fats — including trans fats found in processed cheese, and contains very large amounts of salt and sugar.

The Westernized diet often contains limited amounts of fresh vegetables — but which are slathered with butter, highly-processed dressings, or sauces. A salad with dressing, a muffin, or a coffee Frappuccino packs about 500 calories each. A large order of french fries may contain as many calories as the main meal. One full meal is high in calories — often well over 2500 calories, yet poor in essential nutrients like vitamins and plant compounds. While caloric intake and physical activity vary from one person to another, the average diet is estimated to be around 2000 calories.

On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes the consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats like olive oil, lean meats and fish, beans, nuts, and herbs. It also recommends limiting portions of red meat and eliminating processed foods. A sample lunch menu would be a fresh salad topped with lemon, olive oil, or roasted vegetables, along with steamed salmon and whole grain pasta. Also, herbs and spices often replace salt for seasoning a meal. Fruit or yogurt is consumed for dessert.

The Mediterranean diet is plant-based — plants are low in calories, yet rich in vitamins, minerals, omega 3s, and healthy fibers. Following this dietary pattern can help a person avoid excess calories while consuming nutritious foods.

New research: a Westernized diet and lifestyle may increase cancer risk

A research study published in Nature in September 2022 suggests that a Western diet is one of the lifestyle factors that may play a role in the development of early onset cancer in individuals under 50.

A US team of scientists led by Drs. Ugai, Sasamoto, Lee, and Ando noted that over the last several decades, 14 types of cancer have been occurring earlier in life in multiple countries. They include cancers of the breast, colorectum, endometrium, gallbladder, kidney, liver, prostate, stomach, and thyroid. While it is true that screening tests are more available now than in the past, these tests are unlikely to be the only cause why cancer is more prevalent in the younger population.

Based on an extensive review of scientific literature, researchers believe that Western lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, smoking, obesity, and consuming highly-processed foods are all possible risk factors for early onset cancers. Furthermore, eight out of the 14 types of cancer under research affect the digestive tract, further supporting the role of a Westernized diet. This diet directly affects gut flora composition — and the gut flora influences the risk of cancer and disease outcomes.

Other research studies evaluated the health risks related to a Westernized diet. There is a strong correlation between consuming Western-style diets and obesity. In addition, these kinds of eating habits cause inflammation and depress the immune system, increasing the risk of various illnesses.

Being overweight or obese significantly raises a person’s risk for developing chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and cancer. Dementia, polycystic ovary syndrome, fertility issues, and more severe forms of COVID-19 infections are also associated with obesity. Westernized diets have also been linked with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In teenagers, Western-style diets have also been linked with ADHD.

Embracing healthy eating habits

On the other hand, the Mediterranean plan has documented health benefits — it helps reduce the risk of diabetes and heart diseases, and promotes a healthy weight, and may also protect against cancer.

Individuals who wish to lose weight should seek the advice of dieticians or nutritionists. Maintaining a healthy weight is important to overall health — even a modest weight loss of 5 to 10% of total body weight is likely to provide health benefits. Health experts recommend gradual weight loss — about 1-2 pounds per week with the goal of keeping the weight off. More important than counting calories is to avoid processed foods and consume wholesome foods that are rich in nutrients.

Regular exercise, good sleep hygiene, and stress management are also important components of a healthy lifestyle.

Conclusion

Most Americans consume Westernized diets which have been linked to excess weight, diabetes, heart diseases, dementia, and ADHD. A new study suggests that this dietary pattern, along with other unhealthy lifestyle habits, may also play a role in developing 14 types of cancer in young adults. The good news is that this potential risk factor can be modified by switching to a whole food diet like the Mediterranean diet. Regular exercise, good quality sleep, and stress management are all part of a healthy lifestyle and may help prevent chronic illnesses.

Key takeaways

New research suggests a Westernized diet and lifestyle may increase cancer risk.

Studies have linked a Westernized diet with diabetes type 2, excess weight, cardiovascular diseases, high cholesterol, dementia, and ADHD.

Adopting a Mediterranean-type diet and improving one’s lifestyle can help prevent chronic illnesses.

Resources:

Nature: Is early-onset cancer an emerging global epidemic? Current evidence and future implications

Missouri Medicine: Obesity and the Western Diet: How We Got Here

Journal of Attention Disorders: ADHD is associated with a "Western" dietary pattern in adolescents

The Permanente Journal: Westernized Diet is the Most Ubiquitous Environmental Factor in Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Nutrients: Cancer and Mediterranean Diet: A Review

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