Since I started my diet review series, I've been reading a lot on the Standard American, or Western, Diet1,2 and I think it's time to come up with the list of top issues that this diet brings to us. Also, we are not going to simply critique everything, we are going to talk about possible solutions, so let's troubleshoot the Western Diet today!
Issue #5: Introduction of unnatural food items and ingredients – sweeteners, preservatives, MSG to improve the taste, industrial trans-fats etc. The list is long, there are literally thousands of various chemicals that are used to make our food more palatable, desirable, to increase its shelf life and to make its production more profitable. And as the science shows, many of these ingredients are detrimental to our health in a variety of ways – some of them are cancerogenic, some disrupt our metabolism and trick our autoregulation mechanisms into doing something unhealthy, some are associated with cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancers and many other conditions without any good explanation that we know of yet. I do not want to vilify all the achievements of food industry, but if we take a closer look at our regular meals, we will discover that on a daily basis we are making lots of unhealthy choices, many of which are hidden in the small, almost unreadable, print on the back of the food items we purchase. In fact, we have almost lost the ability to make healthy choices unless we take our nutrition very seriously.
Solution: Being more nutrition-conscious and avoiding these ingredients. We can go fully organic, which might be expensive and even unrealistic or unnecessary for some, or we can try to simply eliminate the major offenders by not getting processed foods and picking the food items that our ancestors would be normally eating, preferably cooking them ourselves. Effectively, I just described the Paleo diet, which I will talk about in one of my future blogs.
Issue #4: Consumption of foods that we can process or ate historically at certain points of our life, but we are not meant to consume regularly or in large quantities. We are talking about milk and all dairy products, fermented foods like alcohol, cheese, and… yes, bread and bakeries.
Milk: As babies we were meant to drink our mothers' milk, but mother nature didn't expect us to consume it throughout all our life. A lot of people completely lose their ability to process milk as it was never an important food category for adults. Cheese and many other fermented dairy products are highly calorific.
Bread: I put it in the same category as our ancestors could have eaten some wild grains, but they started adding yeast to it, let it be fermented and then baking it relatively recently. Lots of people are concerned about gluten and for a good reason.
Alcohol: Alcohol is another unique fermented food – it's highly calorific, it disrupts many processes in our body and is associated with over 80 different chronic and acute diseases, many of them being cancers.
We don't have perfect understanding of how our bodies respond to all these foods, but some of them are rather problematic and since we consume them in unnatural quantities, they must have at least some negative impact on our health.
Solution: Try to avoid these foods and focus on things that are more natural to us from the evolutionary standpoint – minimize your intake of baked goods, dairy products and alcohol. I know, the image of a charcuterie board or a cheese plate with a bottle of perfectly paired wine is very appealing, but it should go out of the window. So be it! Again, I find myself talking about the idea of following some sort of ancestral eating pattern, and, as promised, I will dedicate one or two blogs to this nutritional approach.
Issue #3: Carbohydrates. This one is really big, but still not the main, pet peeve of mine and here is why it's just #3, not #1. Carbohydrates are present in nature, our bodies are clearly well-equipped to handle them, we can boost our cognition and athletic performance if we consume right amounts of right carbs, at right moments of time… Well, here is the problem – we are eating too much of them, especially of refined carbs, all the time. And our bodies process them the way they are hardwired to – they release insulin, which converts all extra glucose in our bloodstream into fat. Spikes of insulin increase insulin resistance, excessive amounts of carbohydrates in combination with insulin resistance lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome and a whole plethora of other health issues.
Solution: Low-carbohydrate diet (or ketogenic if you will). I do believe that we are not supposed to consume large amounts of carbs, let alone highly refined ones and restricting carbohydrate intake would significantly reduce our risks of getting chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and others. Essentially, if we use the previous two solutions – eating naturally occurring foods – we would be close to solving the carbohydrate problem as these naturally occurring foods usually don't have a lot of carbs, at least refined sugars. Which leads us to the next issue.
Issue #2: Extremely high food availability, both in terms of cost and variety – our ancestors had to hunt for food or at least they had to spend a lot of time searching for edible plants when they were not hunting. Even our agricultural ancestors had to work in the field a lot and they spent a lot of energy growing and preserving the crops, harvesting them and then preserving the harvest during the winter. Nowadays, we can have lots of food for a small fraction of our income. Moreover, we can get almost all kinds of foods all around the year, though many of them are not in season in our area. You can get watermelons in the middle of winter in Toronto and there are 24/7 grocery stores. To compound the problem, many of these foods were highly modified via selection, hybridization, chemical engineering or other techniques to such extent that even the most naturally sounding foods turn out to be very different from the things our ancestors ate, like most of the fruits and berries, that look like Frankenstein monstrosities in comparison to their wild relatives.
Solution: Time-restricted eating, intermittent fasting, focusing on quality of foods and being very selective with what we eat. Again, this in line with previous solutions and we have another topic for future discussion – intermittent fasting.
The main problem (Issue #1): Incredible caloric intake surplus – along with increased palatability, overstimulation of our senses, high cost-effectiveness of our foods, social pressures and incentives to eat, we end up consuming way too much nutrients than we need, and accordingly we store them as fat, which in turn leads to multiple health issues. I specifically put this issue on the first place because it trumps everything else and as I am going to show in this series there is no way we can lose weight and stay healthy if we consume too many calories. Even if we eat “healthy”. I know, a lot of people would argue with me on that and they would tell me that there are lots of people who go on some specific diets without any caloric restriction in mind like keto, or carnivore, or intermittent fasting and they lose weight and feel amazing. And my answer to that would be that all these people who benefit from these diets are effectively restricting their caloric intake along with following their apparently non-hypocaloric diets.
Solution: Caloric restriction. Calories in less or equals to calories out. Yes, it is that simple and I cannot stress enough how strongly convinced I am that this is the main issue with our nutrition these days and that caloric restriction is the main solution. I've spent years researching and trying different diets and I can tell you based on empirical and statistical evidence that this is the way to go and this is the statement that will crown my diet review series in a while, just let me get there.
So, in my 5-10 upcoming blogs, I will cover at least 4-5 most common diets that I've mentioned, and of course one of them will be caloric restriction (or hypocaloric diet). I will also start comparing them and bringing up the data from trials of different diets and observational studies (though we know they are quite flawed). I will show you the comparative effectiveness and factors determining your success with various dietary approaches. Please, subscribe to my YouTube channel and to my website. And of course, you can always ask questions, make your comments and suggestions either on YouTube, or here on my website.
1. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(2):341-354.
2. Kopp W. How Western Diet And Lifestyle Drive The Pandemic Of Obesity And Civilization Diseases. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2019;12:2221-2236.