Quite a few time, this blog has mentioned the so called “Western Diet” but only in passing and never with a complete definition. This is largely because it is assumed that most of the readers themselves are followers of the western diet, which is common in America, Canada, and much of Europe. This article will discuss what the western diet is, and how it has led to the “Obesity Epidemic.”
The Western Diet is a lot of Unhealthy Fats, refined grains, and Sugar
The western diet started to be common in America around the mid twentieth century, and began to take large effect in Europe shortly after, though it really began to explode there in the 1980s. One of the hallmarks of the western diet is its reliance on prepared food, largely in the form of both fast foods, and in the form of heavily processed and pre-packaged foods. These foods, in addition to usually being very high in artificial colors and preservatives, bear the further danger of having high amounts of refined sugars, as well as trans-fats.
Trans-fats are an unnatural form of fat, also called “partially hydrogenated oils” which are made by artificially adding hydrogen atoms to healthier unsaturated fats to make something with a texture somewhere between a cooking oil and a solid fat. This new form of fat — which gives packaged bakery foods their otherwise unattainable springy texture, and packaged snack foods their tell-tale shine — has been found to build up in the body more quickly than other forms of fat leading to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
These packaged foods also contain a great deal of sugar, and often in many different forms. It is not uncommon to pick up a box of pre-made muffins to see that they contain more sugar than flour, not to mention after flour they are likely to contain a number of different kinds of corn syrup, a different form of sugar.
While sugars do exist naturally in almost every kind of food – after all, corn syrup is made from corn – the sorts of highly refined sugars used in most processed foods offer virtually nothing but calories, where sugar from fruits comes with all of the vitamins, water, minerals and fiber naturally in that fruit. When the body has more calories than it needs it stores those calories as fat and eventually this fat can accumulate on vital organs, including the liver, which can eventually lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Processed foods are also made with refined flours which offer more calories for less nutrients than do darker, less visually appealing forms of flour. Worse yet, these products are how many people on the western diet get most of their daily carbohydrates.
The Western Diet Means Unwise Beverage Choices
Another staple in the western diet is soft drinks. These beverages have many of the same characteristics as do the processed foods that make up so much of the average American’s diet: artificial colors and preservatives, an abundance of sweeteners, and little, if any actual nutrients.
This is largely true of sodas and energy drinks, though hot drinks are also often sweetened and colored and can contribute just as many calories to the diet as do sodas. Furthermore, fruit juices are often full of added sugars, colors, flavors, and preservatives, though as more and more people are becoming mindful of their health, more natural options are becoming widely available.
Many people following the standard western diet also drink too much alcohol. While “lite” beer –with fewer calories than a standard draft — are fairly popular, many tend to forget that alcohol itself is an energy yielding nutrient. This means that no matter how few calories from sugar are in an alcoholic beverage, that alcohol will be broken down and stored the same way that those sugars would be.
While most healthier diets around the world include moderate alcohol consumption, they are more likely to have a glass of wine with dinner than a few lite beers after work.
The Western Diet Means too Much Protein from all the Wrong Places
People who follow the western diet also tend to over-value protein, and to get most of their protein from red meat sources. While red meat is a good source of protein and iron, it is also a source of unhealthy saturated fats, which are not found in white meat (with the exception of chicken skin). Red meat and white meat lack the healthy oils that are found in fish and plant sources of protein like nuts and seeds. Most other diets throughout the world privilege protein from white meat, and the above mentioned plant sources and only consume red meat a few times per week, if at all.
Many following the western diet also fail to consume an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables. As well as good sources of dietary fiber and natural sugars. These foods are a key source of vitamins and minerals that cannot often be found in high quantities from protein sources or grains, especially not the highly refined variety most common to the people of America and much of Europe.
The Western Diet Meant not Getting Enough Exercise
To include the topic of exercise, most people following a western diet get very little exercise, and follow a largely sedentary lifestyle. This is due in large part to the fact that many jobs these days require little actual activity, and people who have these jobs do not always take the time to be mobile in other ways.
While it can be hard to fit extra exercise in, the Center for Disease Control recommends a minimum of only two and a half hours per week. Of course regular exercise helps to burn calories, but it also helps to increase resting metabolism, aid the immune system, increase lung and heart health, and help the bones and muscles stay strong into old age.
In other parts of the world where the life expectancy is longer there is usually what is called “Natural Movement,” or doing things that require a little energy all day rather than doing nothing for most of the day and exercising in short bursts. While this is difficult to do in many of the jobs more common in America and Europe, many people have started to incorporate it to some extent through small changes like sitting on exercise balls instead of chairs. These require work by the legs and core to keep the person upright and balanced, leading to more muscles working even while the body remains mostly stationary.
While it can be hard for people used to the western way of life to make changes to the foods and activities that they have become used to, making small changes incrementally can lead to a longer, healthier, and happier life.