Is the Western diet killing us?

Just when you thought it was safe to venture into the middle aisles of a supermarket, even more evidence is merging about the damaging effects of the modern, Western diet. A new term, Ultra-processed foods has been used to define the modern obsession with sugary drinks, breads, ready-made meals, confectioneries and processed meats. There have been a number of studies over the years showing the deleterious effects of all of these foods for a variety of conditions.

For example, the daily consumption of one soft drink has been linked to a marked increase in type 2 diabetes and obesity, osteoporosis, tooth decay, behavioural abnormalities in children and even a higher rate of cancer. The regular ingestion of processed meats, such as delicatessen meats and bacon, has been linked to a 40% increased risk for cardiovascular disease. But, there has not been a study looking at the actual incidence of death in people who have high levels of these processed foods.

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A recent survey showed that, unfortunately, these foods now dominate the food supply of high income countries. For example, in the US it is estimated that Ultra-processed foods contribute to around 60% of the daily energy intake. It is not just the fact that these foods are high in calories, fat, sugar and salt but they are also low in fibre, micronutrients and high-quality protein. But, there are a whole host of artificial ingredients in these foods as well including additives commonly known as emulsifiers which have been linked directly to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Also, many of these foods require cooking at high temperatures which liberate a chemical known as Acrylamide which is felt to be carcinogenic.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Internal Medicine reviewed around 44,550 people over age 45 followed up for just over 7 years. This showed that with every 10% increased ingestion of Ultra-processed foods, there was a 14% increase in death rate.

Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, discussed a little understood condition known as sepsis. This is a life-threatening condition that occurs following a severe infection that spills into the blood stream. Because of an abnormal immune response to these bacterial infections, this may lead to damage in organs and tissues with a marked drop in blood pressure and also the potential for severe and at times irreversible organ damage. It is estimated that in the US alone there are 1.7 million cases of sepsis per year with 270,000 of these people dying. This is especially so in people over the age of 65.

This new study was performed in mice. Half the mice were fed a Western-style diet with the other group given standard mouse food. When the mice were exposed to pathogenic bacteria, those ingesting the Western diet had much higher rates of inflammation detected in the cardiovascular system, the brain & the gut; more severe & frequent sepsis & a much higher incidence of death.

Clearly, it appears that Western style, processed packaged muck, masquerading as food, changes our immune system making us so more susceptible to septicaemia & a higher rate of death. The next time you feel like a quick dietary fix or a swig of that soft drink, think of the consequences.