You Truly Are What You Eat
By Contributing Author, Ainsley Lawrence
The Western diet usually consists of processed food, high fats, and sugar — all of which negatively affect your body. Processed and fast foods cause a variety of diseases including diabetes, kidney failure, and obesity, and more. Recent studies also reveal that a Western food diet also can have damaging effects on the human endocrine and immunity system.
With this in mind, let’s look at why and how the Western food diet is affecting the health of Americans:
A survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 36.6% of American adults chose to eat fast food daily. Consumption of fast food also decreased with age, with 20-39-year-olds consuming the most fast food at 44.9% of total consumption. Many factors influence these choices, including the convenience of fast food, which often overshadows its ill health effects.
Fast food makes for a quick, convenient option that costs a fraction of its healthy counterpart — homemade nutritious food. The sad reality is that when compared to packaged processed foods, healthier foods like fruits and vegetables are the more expensive options.
Another issue that contributes to unhealthy eating habits is the general lack of healthy food availability in certain parts of the United States. These areas, known as “food deserts”, have limited access to healthy food options, as well as local populations that have limited education around nutrition and how to lead a healthy lifestyle. Back in 2015, 23.5 million Americans lived in food deserts, and the numbers have only increased since. To make matters worse, this issue disproportionately impacts lower-income and impoverished communities, perpetuating a cycle of unhealthy habits.
Finally, highly processed, genetically modified (GMO) food could be a huge contributing factor in the global rise of food allergies. “It is thought that allergies and increased sensitivity to foods are probably environmental, and related to Western lifestyles,” states Dr. Alexandra Santos, a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the Department of Paediatric Allergy at King’s College London in an article written for BBC News. While the reason for the growing trend in food allergies amongst children is unknown, a few studies have linked it to the food we consume and how it is grown and processed.
Unhealthy Components of a Western Diet
Processed and fast food makes up a large part of the standard Western diet. Unfortunately, fast food is loaded with ingredients the body does not need and is lacking in the nutrients our bodies require. Here are a few examples of the components of fast food that are detrimental to our bodies:
- Carbohydrates that are found in various forms of fast and processed foods contain little to no dietary fiber. Consuming large quantities can lead to insulin resistance, Type2 diabetes, and weight gain.
- Processed foods are high in saturated fats and sugar. Added sugar in food means extra calories are are terrible for your cardiovascular system. These can lead to hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes.
- An ingredient that is present in all processed food is sodium. High sodium levels often result in high blood pressure, bloating, water retention, and weight gain.
The Health Effects of Fast Food
Other than the commonly known effects of fast food as outlined in the above section, studies have shown that the consumption of junk food correlates to an imbalance of hormones in the body. Dietician Abby Vichill outlines chemicals and foods that cause hormonal imbalance. She explains that processed food contains “various toxins… that are referred to as “endocrine disruptors” because they interfere with the body’s hormonal communication in many ways.” The chemicals in pesticides, refined sugar, soy, and sodium are just some of the endocrine-disrupting ingredients in fast food.
Aside from the endocrine system, fast food can have long-lasting effects on female menstrual health. Some studies show that young girls who consume a high quantity of processed and fast food are more likely to face irregular periods and heavy bleeding. Men are at risk too. The presence of preservatives like butylated hydroxytoluene that is a commonly used fast food can lower testosterone levels in men. Thus, overconsumption of fast food can negatively affect fertility in both men and women and lead to a slew of reproductive issues. One study even found that exposure to phthalates (a chemical found in fast foods) could lead to future birth defects!
Finally, an often overlooked effect of the Western diet is its impact on mental health. Increased anxiety and worry, a feeling of lethargy, and a loss of confidence are all side-effects of fast food consumption. In fact, a study quoted in Eat This, Not That! found that “people who ate fast food were 51 percent more likely to develop depression than those who didn’t.”
You Are What You Eat
All this is to say that how and what you eat has a direct impact on your health. An unbalanced lifestyle, excess food, not enough sleep, and little to no exercise are all factors that can trigger long-term irreversible conditions.
The first step to a healthier diet is to include a balance of macronutrients into your diet and eat less or no processed food. Macro and micronutrients provide your body with energy, nutrients, and minerals and when eaten in a balanced diet, contribute to cellular growth, immune function, and cell repair. It may seem expensive to include these in your diet, but there are many ways to stay healthy without breaking the bank.
Planning and preparing your meals in advance, prioritizing home cooking, storing food correctly, using your leftovers wisely, and starting your own home garden are all ways to control the quality of food you consume. Remember, in the long term, health is wealth — so don’t try and penny-pinch when it comes to your own nutrition.
The Western Diet of overconsumption of the wrong types of food is causing more damage than just weight gain. The full effects of this lifestyle will only come with time, but the statistics and diseases related to it are enough to paint a bleak picture for the health of those that follow it. Rather than being just another statistic, be mindful of your food choices, and prioritize your health and well-being above all else.