Western Diets and Western Diseases

ZimSculpt Exhibit at Dallas Arboretum

In nature, eating has always been relationships among species in food chains[1]. Species co-evolve with the other species that they eat, and very often there develops a relationship of interdependence:
I'll feed you if you spread around my genes


In many cases, long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communication up and down the food chain so that a creature's senses come to recognize foods as suitable by their taste and smell and color.  Very often these signals are "sent" by the foods themselves, which may have their own reasons for wanting to be eaten.  Ripeness in fruit is often signaled by a distinctive smell (an appealing scent that can travel over distances), or color (one that stands out from the general green), or taste (typically sweet).


Therefore, health depends heavily on knowing how to read these biological signals: This looks ripe; this smells spoiled; that's one slick-looking cow.  


This is much easier to do when you have long experience of a food and much harder when a food has been expressively designed to deceive your senses with, say, artificial flavors or synthetic sweeteners.  Foods that lie to our senses are one of the most challenging features of the Western diet.

Western Diets

To feed ever-growing population, food industry has come up ingenious ways of making foods more durable and portable.  The industry has transformed our foods in five fundamental ways over the last 150 years[1]:

  1. From whole foods to refined
    • Refined foods extends their shelf life (precisely because they are less nutritious to the pests that compete with us for their calories) and makes them easier to digest by removing the fiber that ordinarily slows the release of their sugars.
  2. From complexity to simplicity
    • At every level  from the soil to the plate, the industrialization of the food chain has involved a process of chemical and biological simplification.
    • Today four crops (i.e., corn, soy, wheat, and rice) account for 2/3 of the calories we eat.  When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some 80,000 edible species, this represents a radical simplification of the human diet.
  3. From quality to quantity
    • American agriculture's focusing on increasing yields has sacrificed the nutritional quality of our food.
    • A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished.
  4. From leaves to seeds
    • As a consequence, we're eating a lot more seeds and a lot fewer leaves.
    • Sadly, leaves provide a host of critical nutrients (i.e., antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids[13], etc.) a body can't get from a diet of refined seeds.
  5. From food culture to food science 
    • Culture is another word for mom, the figure who typically passes on the food ways that endured and tended to keep people healthy.
    • The specific combination of foods in a cuisine and the ways they are prepared constitute a deep reservoir of accumulated wisdom about diet and health and place.

These transformations have changed not only our foodstuffs but also our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal.  Much is at stake when a creature's food environment changes.  Undeniably, recent studies have all shown that western diets have led us to degenerative infirmities[8,14] that plaque so many older people in the West:

  • Heart disease
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Diabetes

and an accelerated aging process in general.

Are We living Longer[2]

Very high mortality rates prevailed in Europe throughout medieval times.  This was a result of both deficiencies in sanitation and insufficient food for population that had expanded faster than agriculture.


Mortality rate were lower in the last century, which may be mainly due to the following reasons:

  • Improvement in sanitation 
    • Mostly as a result of the availability of clean water and flush toilets to eliminate waste[5]
  • Better food supplies
  • Less wars
  • Less exploitation of civilians by brutal rulers
  • Fewer infants and toddlers are now dying of infections
  • Fewer women are dying in childbirth


However, as Dr. Fuhrman[2] said, lifespan advances in adult males (that is,, non-childbirth related) have not improved significantly, because reductions in later-life, infectious disease related deaths were more than compensated for by increases in chronic diseases of nutritional ignorance and dietary excess:

    As processed foods, fast foods, and commercially mass-produced animal products became the dietary norm, heart disease, strokes, and cancer increased to fill the void left by the decreased impact of infectious diseases.
    The decline in infectious disease is due to plumbing (not medical advances), which is the main factor accounting for the overall increases in lifespan that is claimed in modern times.

Dr. Fuhrman's statements are echoed by a recent NPR report saying that a key finding from a large-scale study[9]:

  • People around the world are living longer than they did two decades ago, but many people aren't very healthy during those extra years.

Western Diseases

Today, the American diet takes over 60% of its calories from processed foods.  Processed foods are generally mixed with additives, coloring agents, and preservatives to extend shelf life, and they're placed in plastic bags and cardboard boxes.  Americans consume less than 10% of their calories from unrefined plant foods such as fruits, beans, seeds, and vegetables.  Even worse, half the vegetable consumption is from white potato products, including fries and chips.  Many phytochemicals in freshly harvested plant foods are lost or destroyed by modern processing techniques, including cooking.  Since neither processed foods nor animal products contain a significant load of antioxidant nutrients or any phytochemicals, the western diet is dramatically disease-promoting[2,14].


As processed foods and fast foods expanded into the underdeveloped world, we saw rural areas starting to develop higher rates of cancer and obesity.  The study by CDC in 2006 also shows that recent immigrants to the United States are far healthier than their US-born counterparts. The reason? The diets and lifestyles in the US are far less healthy than those in many other countries.  The result today is a nation with exploding numbers of people with immune system disorders, allergies, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cancers.

Conclusion

We have good records on the lifespan achieved by over 150 Renaissance artists living in the fourteenth century, whose average age of death was considerably higher than that of the average male in America today[6].


Advancements in medicine and pharmacology are largely credited for major advances in health and in saving lives. But the reality is this: medical care has little effect on the overall health quality or even the average age of death in modern societies worldwide. If fact, exposure to medical care and resources spent on health care are linked to decreases in healthy life expectancy, not increases[7].


Emergency medical care is valuable, but in the modern world emergencies linked to injury, accidents, and infection are no longer the leading causes of death.  Heart disease, strokes, and cancer are now the big three. Treating bad nutritional choices with drugs—choices that lead to morbidity in later life, after years and years of self-abuse—will never be an efficacious solution. Our bodies are highly resilient and self-repairing, but medications cannot enable us to escape the biological laws of cause and effect.  When we damage ourselves with exposure to toxic, disease-causing diets, we develop diseases.


We have to be responsible for our own health and rely on vigilant avoidance of the underlying causes of disease. We need to adopt scientifically supported superior nutrition and rid ourselves of the idea that doctors and pharmaceutical companies are our saviors, capable of enabling us to live long and productive lives.


Instead, we need to eat lots of high-nutrient, natural plant foods: vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds.  In conjunction, we need to eat much less from animal products category and eat far fewer (or no) foods that are completely empty of nutrients or indeed toxic for the body—foods such as sugar, other sweeteners, white flour, processed foods, refined oils, and fast foods.


To conclude, here is the proposed model by Dr. Fuhrman that should help us live longer and healthier life[2]:

  • More Green Vegetables -> Less DNA Methylation -> Lower Risk of Cancer
In other words, "eat your salad as main dish."  Or, as Michael Pollan[1] suggested, "stop eating a Western diet."

References

  1. In the Defense of Foods by Michael Pollan
  2. Super Immunity by Joel Fuhrman, MD.
  3. USDA Economics Research Service, 2005
  4. Gobbling Up Snacks: Cause or Potential Cure for Childhood Obesity? (USDA  Economics Research Service)
  5. Achievements in public health, 1900-1999: control of infectious diseases, MMWR 1999; 48(29): 621-29.
  6. McManus IC. Life expectation of Italian Renaissance artists.  Lancet 1975; 1(7901):266-67.
  7. Baicker K, Chandra A. Health affairs (2004): Medicare spending, the physician workforce, and beneficiaries' quality of care; DOI:10.1377/hlthaff.w4.184.  Abramson J. Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine.  HarperCollins, 2004.
  8. Healthy at 100 by John Robbins 
  9. We're Living Longer, But Not All That Healthier (npr.org)
  10. The Sweet Relished and the Bitter Loathed (Travel and Health)
  11. Eating Organic, Local, and Seasonal Foods (Travel and Health)
  12. How to Live Longer and Healthier Life (Travel and Health)
  13. The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them by Susan Allport
  14. World renowned heart surgeon speaks out on what really causes heart disease (Dr. Dwight Lundell)
  15. Health at a Glance 2013-OECD Indicators
  16. The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts (Travel and Health)
  17. How to think about food: Annemarie Colbin at TEDxManhattan 2013 (must-watch video)

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