Deficiency Series: How does the Western Diet Damage our Health?
The Western diet is often uttered in disgusted tones among Nutritionists simply due to its lack of nutritional focus. Alternatively, it is known as the American Standard Diet or Meat-Sweet Diet. As the alternative name suggests countries such as America led the way in this dietary shift, along with other first world countries such as England and Scotland.
However, with powerful countries such as these leading the way it's understandable why once healthy countries such as Brazil, Belgium and Canada are following suit.
What Characterises the Western Diet?
A summation of the Western diet is ‘Junk Food’, it includes:
- Increased number of refined grains, e.g. white bread, white pasta, sugar laden desserts
- High consumption of high-fat dairy products, e.g. butter and cream.
- Higher intakes of poor quality processed and red meat, e.g beef burgers and pork sausages
- Increased number of eggs
- Increased number of processed potato products, e.g chips, french fries, waffles and hash browns
- Decreased number of wholegrains
- Decreased number of fruits and vegetables consumed
- Decrease in lean, unprocessed poultry and fish.
- Increased consumption of high sugar sweetened beverages e.g cola, and energy drinks .
A combination of even just a few of these dietary habits can make for a poor nutritional status within the body. This coincides with the increase in restaurants and fast food chains, decrease in exercise and increase in car use. This has increased our rates of obesity, blood lipids, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease (CHD), not to mention it is a nutritional epidemic. As we have transitioned from hunter-gatherer, to agricultural and now non-agricultural lifestyles, our diet has significantly changed. It is only now that we see the consequences of the non-agricultural and highly processed diet.
According to recent statistics, the UK’s average daily calorie intake is 3,450 calories per day! An excess of 1,050-1,450 per day, depending on gender. The US is even more shocking at 3,750 calories per day . Calories are a term used to describe our energy intakes. In the pre-evolutionary time our energy was sourced from wholegrains that were grown, cut and gathered by our ancestors. A small amount came from unprocessed animal meats that were hunted. Now, this is very different, one scary statistic showed that now 72.1% of westernised diets are formed of processed dairy products, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, alcohol and cereals. It doesn’t take a Nutritionist to know that this can be detrimental to health . The healthy divide of energy is split between 50% carbohydrates, 30% proteins and 20% fat. Carbohydrates should be wholegrain, proteins should be lean and unprocessed, and fats should be of the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated variety .
Sugar cravings plague us all at some points. However in the last 100+ years our sugar consumption has soared, which has coincided with the increase in obesity . It’s now thought that the average person consumes nearly 67kg of refined sugar a year. This may be encouraged by an increase in sugar sweetened beverages and fruit juice. Sugar has become one of the main sources of our carbohydrates and energy, instead of wheat and grain sources. Despite this, our wheat varieties have also decreased in nutrition. This may be due to overproduction and the decline of mineral content within the soil. A statistic showed a 19-28% decrease in minerals such as Magnesium, Iron, Zinc and Copper in modern wheat .
Our current daily intakes of fruit and vegetables is despicable, one statistic showed that only 25% of men, 28% of women and 16% of children consumed their 5-a-day recommendation. Why 5-a-day you may ask? It is thought that 400g of fruits and vegetables is adequate to provide the recommended daily amounts of essential fibre, water, vitamins and minerals required for good health.
Our protein sources have also greatly changed, in pre-evolutionary times we sourced our meat from animals we hunted and gathered ourselves Moving in to agricultural times it was from the local farmer, fishmonger or butcher, unprocessed and nutritious. Now majority of our protein in the Western diet is sourced from highly processed red meats. The problem with processing is that it loses its nutritious content, e.g Iron and B-Vitamins. Additionally, our consumption of fish is at an all times low meaning that nutrients such as Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin A and D are lacking in our current diets.
What Nutritional Deficiencies does this lead to?
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin found in abundance within our bodies if a nutritious diet is adhered to. Vitamin C is found in the majority of fruits and vegetables, specifically mangoes, bell peppers, kale, spinach, and strawberries. Considering Western diets are not packed full of fruits and vegetables it is understandable how we may lack Vitamin C. Vitamin C is a nutrient powerhouse, it helps with immune system health, collagen production, energy metabolism, nervous system function, and antioxidant properties.
Vitamin A comes in a variety of forms, that is retinol from milk, cheese egg yolks and fish. Or Beta-carotene/Lutein/Lycopene found in sweet potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers and kale. Vitamin A is mostly used for healthy vision but is also responsible for the immune system and healthy skin. Vitamin A is found abundantly in fish, that in Britain we do not consume enough. On the other hand, beta-carotene and other vegetable derived Vitamin A sources are not being consumed because our vegetable intakes are poor. For example, just one large carrot provides 75% of your daily intake of the beta-carotene form of Vitamin A .
Vitamin D is one of the most undervalued, yet nutritionally important vitamins of our time, simply because we are not getting enough. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight, but with ever increasing numbers of people in desk jobs and preoccupied with computer games we are losing out on its nutritional benefits. Vitamin D works alongside Calcium in order to strengthen our bones and teeth. Vitamin D has also been shown to help asthma, seasonal affective disorder and Atherosclerosis. Other sources of Vitamin D include fish, fortified margarines, mushrooms and plant oils.
B Vitamins are mostly sourced from lean meats, organ meats and wholegrains. As previously mentioned due to processing or poor soil quality our meats and wheats aren’t what they used to be. B Vitamins have a wide array of benefits, but many of them associate to the health of the nervous system, cognitive function, cell division and blood cell production. If you have fallen victim to the Western Diet then watch your Vitamin B1, B2, B9 and B12 status.
Iron can be haem or non-haem. Haem sources include red meats-Beef and lamb, and some shellfish. Whereas Non-haem sources include kale, spinach, dried fruits, nuts and legumes. The problem with Iron is that in heavy processing this can be lost, so in beef burgers or pork sausages there is considerably less Iron than the content of a Steak or Pork loin. In addition, there are many anti-nutrients that prevents the absorption of Iron, such as the tannins in tea. Alternatively there are also conditions that aid Iron absorption, this includes the presence of Vitamin C. Simply by including unprocessed lean meats, and atleast 5 fruits/vegetables a day it could vastly improve health. Iron is required for blood cell formation, cell division, promotion of cognitive function and energy metabolism.
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- Bjarnadottir, A. (2016). 7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common. Available: https://authoritynutrition.com/7-common-nutrient-deficiencies/.