If you live in the U.S. or any Western country, you will probably have heard about the Western diet and how bad it is for our health.
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The first time I heard the term “Western diet”, I thought: what’s wrong with the way I eat? I am a Western woman, but do I actually eat a Western diet?
So, I thought about what I was eating and cooking for my family. Actually, I happen to eat a little bit of everything, I am really an omnivore, and I love food. I lived in countries like China, Mexico or Ecuador, who have totally different diets. I have a very varied and diversified diet and literally eat dishes from 4 continents.
But it is also true that I never eat (or drink) junk food, sodas, fruit juices, processed foods, greasy pizzas, French fries (ok, maybe a few times a year), and pretty much all you can see on the picture to the right but for the sandwich in the middle. I do eat this kind of bread.
So, I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don’t eat a Western diet. Which led me to the conclusion that I am a Western woman who doesn’t eat a Western diet. Interesting.
This means you can perfectly do the same. Good news!
But what is the Western diet actually?
There are a few different “official” definitions of this diet, but they are not all very accurate, they often point to the wrong issues and they can sometimes be confusing. And in my opinion, the issue with this diet is what you eat as much as what you don’t eat.
So, I am listing here a few characteristics of what I consider a rather typical Western diet:
- Low intake of vegetables (and to a lesser extent, fruit)
- Low intake of foods that contain enzymes (raw foods or fermented foods)
- High intake of sugar-loaded beverages (sodas, sports drinks, fruit juices)
- High intake of industrially processed foods
- High intake of industrial animal products (meat, milk, cheese)
- High intake of modern wheat products
What’s bad about the Western diet?
Most people find this diet to have benefits: it’s convenient, it’s cheap, and for many people it’s even tasty. Nothing wrong with that.
But the problem is that 70% of Americans and Mexicans are overweight, and figures are not that better for many European countries: 56% of Spanish adults and a record 77% of Spanish kids and adolescents are overweight. And more and more people have many diseases that have been attributed to this diet.
So, while a big plate of refined pasta made with modern, hybridized wheat with processed tomato sauce, processed cheese, eaten while sipping a soda (which is basically sugar in a bottle) might be convenient, cheap, and might send pleasurable stimuli to our taste buds, there is definitely something wrong about it.
What’s wrong about pasta with tomato and cheese? Well, actually, it’s not really the pasta, it’s not really the tomato, it’s not really the cheese. The issue is to be found in the terms refined, hybridized, and processed. Things that our bodies don’t really know what to do with.
Now, let’s examine what makes this diet a bad thing for our body and our health. I’m going to elaborate on each one of the characteristics I have listed above and for each item, I’ll briefly explain what we can do to move away from this UNhealthy diet pattern.
1/ Low intake of vegetables (and to a lesser extent, fruit)
This one is a biggie, and to me it is THE number one problem with the Western diet. Why? Because we as humans have evolved to eat a lot of vegetables and some fruit. Vegetables and fruit provide a lot of the nutrients that our body needs, including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.
If people would eat a lot of vegetables, their body would get a lot of what it needs to function properly, and people would obviously eat a lot less of the foods that can be harmful for their health.
But why do we eat so few veggies and fruits, if they are so good for us? After all, our governments, be it in the U.S., in the U.K., in France, or in Spain, to give just a few examples, are working hard at persuading us to eat vegetables and fruit…
…well, yes, but have you ever noticed that they are subsidizing everything but vegetable and fruit producers? They usually subsidize (more or less heavily depending on the country) sugar, corn, wheat, dairy and meat industries.
What then happens is that food companies make more profit on foods containing these products, and they can afford to market their foods on TV.
So, the only foods we see advertised and marketed, with a lot of suspicious health claims by the way, are processed foods, foods high in sugar or salt, but not the vegetables and fruit that we are actually supposed to eat. The result is that people end up consuming very low amounts of veggies and fresh fruit, and high amounts of advertised “healthy” foods.
And not only is the vegetable consumption low, but it is also adamantly poor in variety. In the U.S., for example, according to the USDA, 29% of vegetables eaten are potatoes (lots of it in the form of French fries), and 28.6% are tomatoes. The rest is about 5% each of lettuce, onions, corn, and cruciferous vegetables, plus a few other varieties that account for the remaining 20 to 25%.
The first step to take in order to move away from the Western diet is to dramatically increase your intake of vegetables (and fresh fruit). And eating French fries doesn’t count!
A practical way to do this is to buy the fruits you like and that can be eaten easily, such as bananas, apples, pears, and have a few in your kitchen, in your car, and at the office. This way, you can eat a piece of fruit instead of some junk snacks when you are hungry.
Another good way to eat more veggies is to buy lettuce, carrots, cooked beets, avocados, tomatoes, and make a quick salad every day together with your lunch or dinner main course.
2/ Low intake of foods that contain enzymes (raw foods or fermented foods)
This is for me the second biggest issue with the Western diet. Enzymes are very important for a host of processes that occur in the body, including digestion.
If you eat 100% of your food cooked, you’ll most probably get no enzyme at all, because cooking destroys enzymes. This is especially true for processed and fast food.
All traditional cultures have some raw food or fermented foods or beverages in their diet. Vegetarians in India will usually eat real yogurt and fermented chutneys at every meal. And even the Chinese, who eat all their food cooked, traditionally have some fermented veggies with their morning rice porridge, and put fermented (traditionally brewed) soy sauce in most dishes.
3/ High intake of sugar-loaded beverages
This one is very simple. Basically, human beings have not evolved to eat any added sugar, let alone refined sugar and all the modern versions of sugar.
Things like high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, dehydrated cane juice, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, processed honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltodextrin, malt syrup, maltose, rice syrup, saccharose, sorghum syrup, sucrose, turbinado sugar, or xylose, are not supposed to find their way to our bodies. Yes, these substances are all forms of what’s commonly called sugar.
And the problem is that people are consuming far too much sugar. In America, people consume about 130 pounds of sugar per year. It’s not their weight in gold, it’s their weight in sugar! Can you imagine? 130 pounds per year are 5.7 ounces per day, that’s 11 tablespoons of sugar per day. Are you still wondering why people end up sick or obese?
But, of course, people don’t really notice it, because the 11 tablespoons of sugar are “hidden” in sodas, fruit juices, bread, processed foods, processed baked goods, and the list is much longer actually. And the worst part is that some of these foods are actually marketed as healthy.
The solution is simple. You need to keep your sugar consumption as low as possible. The best and quickest way to dramatically reduce sugar intake is to stop drinking sodas, sports drinks, and fruit juices that contain added sugars (most of them do in most countries).
Then, further reducing sugar can be done by eliminating or reducing the amount of added sugar in yogurts, coffee, tea, and by reducing your consumption of processed baked goods and all kinds of processed foods. Processed foods contain a lot of added sugar.
The occasional homemade cake or cookie is of course perfectly ok, and the daily teaspoon in your coffee or tea is ok, too. Food is also about pleasure and we are not talking about eliminating sugar (although you might need to do so if you have some serious health concerns). But moderation is the key.
To help you consume a “reasonable” amount of sugar, let’s look at how much sugar was consumed in 1822 in America: less than 2 teaspoons a day. In 1822 there was no obesity or any of the food born diseases that we have today (they had other health issues, though). So, that’s the occasional piece of cake, or sugar in your tea. Now, authorities usually recommend a maximum of 3 tbsp a day, that’s about 9 teaspoons a day. It’s up to you to adapt your consumption to fall anywhere between 2 and 9 teaspoons per day.
For more info on sugar, you can take a look at this infographic about sugar consumption.
4/ High intake of industrially processed foods
I guess everyone knows that this is a big issue with the Western diet. We are busy, we want convenience, we want fast and cheap food, and processed foods are both the blessing and the curse of modern families.
The reality is, indeed, that they are much more of a curse than of a blessing. A long list of modern diseases are attributable to industrially processed foods
Of course, in order to avoid eating industrially processed foods, you need to start cooking; but even if you want to get some ready-made dinners once in a while, there are “safe” processed foods, I’m thinking of Amy’s Kitchen products, which are organic, and that I can recommend because I have tested them, but there are many more options.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the panacea, and you should avoid processed foods (I never eat any myself except when I travel) but the reality of our busy lives is that it’s not always possible. And it’s good to know that there are rather healthy options available on the market.
5/ High intake of industrial animal products (meat, milk, cheese)
Humans are omnivores and they have been eating animal products forever. Meat, fish, milk, milk products, eggs, poultry, are good for our health and give us plenty of the nutrients we need.
They are a part of every traditional diet, and even vegetarian people in India and China and people subsisting mainly on a plant-based diet in other countries incorporate some amounts of animal products such as fermented milk products and eggs, to their diets.
However, there are 3 main issues with animal products in the Western diet: the first one is that we consume far too much of these products compared to what our bodies really need.
The second issue is that we consume meat, milk, yogurt, and cheese that come from animals that have been raised industrially, with lots of pesticides on their food, away from green pastures, with lots of antibiotics, in crowded conditions, and the list is longer. These animals are sick, their fat contains pesticides, and they can no longer be considered as a healthy source of foods for humans.
And the third issue is that we consume animal products that have been industrially processed: bologna, hot dogs, burgers, salami on pizzas, sausages, cheeses, industrial yogurts, etc. These animal products are loaded with sugar, salt, food additives, preservatives and colorings. And no, they are not good at all for our health.
Try to consume animal products that have not been processed (see items listed above) and are as close to the animal as possible.Then, consuming a reasonable amount of animal products is a good approach when you have access to meat, milk, or cheese that come from organically raised, pastured-fed animals. Traditional breeds will also give better quality products.Try to find one single good source for your meat, poultry, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, and eat it with moderation.
6/ High intake of modern wheat products
Just like we have not evolved to eat sugar, we have not evolved to eat processed baked goods or cereals made with refined flour from modern, hybridized wheat. And this seems to be a major issue in the Western diet.
Gluten sensitivity from wheat products seems to be a real issue, as more and more people, who are not gluten intolerant as such, seem to get health benefits by getting wheat out of their diet. And although we are still far from understanding everything about this topic, scientists and doctors seem to agree that it is a real concern. For more info, see recent research here.
Moreover, wheat grains have been hybridized a lot until the 1960s, and since the 1960s in particular, concentrations of minerals in wheat have decreased significantly, which coincided with the introduction of semi-dwarf cultivars that give high yields (see research article here). Which means that wheat is no longer nutritious, even in its whole grain form. So, when the food industry tells you to eat whole wheat bread, they forget to tell you that this would have been a good piece of advice back in…1955, but not in 2012!
Then, eating lots of bread, baked goods, cookies, pasta, crackers, and other wheat-based products means you are eating a lot of carbohydrates. This triggers insulin mechanisms, and big and repeated glucose-insulin surges basically lead to accumulation of visceral fat over time: that’s the famous wheat belly. Of course, you’ll also get fat in other body areas, but the most spectacular fat-gaining body part, so to speak, is usually the belly (and thighs for us women).
If you suspect you have some gluten intolerance, the first thing to do is eliminate wheat from your diet, and see what happens.
If you are overweight and you eat lots of wheat products, highly reducing your consumption is a must if you want to lose those excess pounds.
These are basically the 6 major characteristics of the Western diet that makes us overweight or sick. Personally I prefer to call it the Modern diet, as many Eastern countries are embracing our habits and getting fat or sick, too, and it is no longer really the diet of Western people only.
The best way to escape this diet is to apply the tips above and to go back to the kitchen as much as possible, cooking fresh and quality ingredients.