You don’t have to be a doctor to know that burgers, steak, fries, and cake aren’t the type of food you should be eating. And yet, a great percentage of people (especially those living in developed countries) do tend to reach for these dishes on a daily basis. The Western diet is an eating pattern rich in red meats, high-fat dairy, eggs, fried foods, butter, corn, and sugar. Even more, it’s characterized by the intake of highly processed edibles, such as pre-packaged meats, canned vegetables and soups, and sugary drinks. And its negative implications go much further than obesity. This kind of eating regime has been linked to diabetes, coronary disease, and hypertension, mainly caused by high levels of processed sugars, saturated and trans fats, and sodium. But, what’s even more fascinating is that continued research into this diet keeps bringing new evidence to light, connecting the foods it includes with inflammation, and consequently with autoimmune disease, cancer, and mental health issues.
How food causes damage
According to research, there are two ways in which calorie-rich fatty foods cause inflammation in the body. The first is through changing the gut flora. Simply put, low-quality nutrients feed the ‘bad’ type of bacteria in our stomach, making our intestinal linings permeable. This leads to a higher likelihood of toxins from what we ingest making their way into our bloodstreams. As our body realizes this threat, it jumpstarts a fighting mechanism – our immune system – therefore making us sick. The second, and more interesting, is the evidence showing that the very consumption of junk food is perceived by our body as a threat. The result: a hyperactive immune system that will, sooner or later, start attacking healthy cells.
The link between autoimmune disease, cancer, and inflammation
Autoimmune disease is a dysfunction in which the body is unable to make a distinction between healthy cells and those carrying risks (e.g., infection). Cancer, on the other hand, is the occurrence of damaged cells, which are not identified by the immune system, and thus allowed to reproduce and grow. But how are they connected to what we eat? The key lies in chronic inflammation within the body. As we’ve mentioned above, certain foods and lifestyle choices can cause the immune system to overreact, even when there’s no objective threat to eliminate. Such hyperactivity of white blood cells can cause DNA damage over time, which is, in fact, the cause of diseases like cancer. If an immune system disorder is involved as well, the likelihood of developing further complications increases. This is mainly due to prolonged inflammatory processes. So, for example, those suffering from Crohn’s disease face a higher likelihood of developing colon cancer.
Eliminating triggers in the diet
The good news in all of this is the fact that there are simple ways to fight inflammation and its consequences. One such method is making a change in dietary habits. Navigating away from a Western diet and opting for whole food choices is the single best strategy to battle the effects of an unhealthy modern lifestyle. The Paleo diet, for example, offers a host of benefits. Rich in healthy choices, it regulates insulin, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels. Furthermore, it can contribute to weight and appetite management, as well as restoring healthy gut flora, all by removing the harmful constituents of a Western diet. Being the basis of the autoimmune protocol (AIP), this restrictive diet can help treat and manage the symptoms of a number of ailments through resetting the body’s innate defense mechanism. The list of foods allowed on a paleo meal plan mainly consists of lean meats, healthy fats, low glycemic index fruits, and vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds. Grains, legumes, dairy, and refined goods, including sugars, are entirely eliminated from the diet. These restrictions may seem severe, but they do become easier to handle through practice and experience. Part of the trick is finding healthier alternatives to common inflammatory foods.
Does this mean that everyone should completely switch to a low-carb/Paleo diet?
Not exactly. At least, not for those who are healthy. What current knowledge does suggest, however, is that as a society, we need to rethink the way we eat. Instead of allowing ourselves to gorge on highly processed junk food with little nutritive value, we need to start educating ourselves on the importance of a healthy lifestyle. And for most people, this includes much more than just what they eat.
Making the change
Those ready to take a proactive approach to a healthier self should look at the whole picture. In addition to possible micronutrient deficiencies caused by the typical Western diet, it’s also important to address factors such as sleep, fitness, and stress. Ultimately, all of these leave a significant mark on our appetites, digestive tract, our mental health, and cognitive performance. Thus, making a change for the better means paying attention to every single link in the chain that makes up our wellbeing. This includes minimizing exposure to stress, practicing good sleep hygiene, and exercising a minimum of 150 minutes per week. These are all essential habits in ensuring longevity. And, when they’re coupled with stellar eating habits, they are what will help us feel better as a whole.