The Western Diet: What We Can Learn and How We Can Change ItWhile many people may have heard the term "Western diet," it’s more than likely that there are still questions about what it is and what the issues with it are. In this article, I hope to create a better understanding of what it is and why it may be problematic. I also offer simple solutions to move towards a healthier approach to eating.
Jeremy Partl is a Registered Dietitian with Barbell Logic. Jeremy currently practices in a clinical role as a Renal Dietitian. He completed his dietetic internship through Florida State University with an emphasis on sports nutrition. He has his Master’s degree in Exercise Science and Nutrition from the University of Tampa where he worked as the nutrition director and research assistant in the Human Performance Laboratory at the university.
He holds a bachelor’s in Dietetics from Missouri State University and has held multiple certifications and credentials including being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition and a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certified Coach.
Jeremy works with all aspects of the population, providing nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle counseling and education to achieve a strong & healthy body and mind.
The Western Diet: What We Can Learn and How We Can Change It
By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian
Every year, it seems like we can count on the release of a viral book, documentary, or diet fad/trend that draws the general population’s attention to some nuance of the nutritional field, usually with the goal of promoting some diet or trend. In 2011, it was Forks over Knives; in 2017, it was What the Health; and most recently, it was The Game Changers in 2019. Additionally, there are always a couple of new diet trends/fads that gain or lose popularity every few years—ketogenic diets, whole 30, etc.
Understandably, people want certainty. Many are willing to listen to anyone who promises them as much. Knowing what the right way to eat is or what the best diet is, for many people, the missing key to achieving their health, fitness, and performance goals. While the answer to those questions remains highly specific to the individual, if we look at the commonality of most diet trends, we can uncover some important clues about good nutrition. Each new fad shares one common thing…moving away from the traditional Western diet.
While doing Whole 30 or going plant-based or low carb or paleo may result in positive outcomes, those outcomes are often not directly related to the substance of the diet. Instead, the positive changes you make may have less to do with what you are putting in your mouth and more with what you are keeping out of it. This is an important distinction when evaluating the claims of any new fad. Is it really that eating plants cures obesity and high blood pressure, for example? Or, is it that moving to a plant-based diet tends to shift the composition of a person’s macronutrient intake away from high-sugar and high-fat foods? Let’s examine what most of us are moving away from, which we will refer to as the traditional Western diet.
While many people may have heard the term (Western diet), it’s more than likely that there are still questions about what a “Western diet” is, and what the issues with it are. In this article, I hope to create a better understanding of what it is and why it may be problematic. I also offer simple solutions to move towards a healthier approach to eating (without going to the extremes of being vegan, keto, or any other notable diet trend that has become popular over the last couple of years).
The Problems of a Western Diet
So, what exactly is a “Western diet”? According to a fairly recent paper on the topic, the westernized diet is characterized by a high content of proteins derived from fatty domesticated and processed meats, saturated fats, refined grains, sugar, alcohol, salt, and corn-derived fructose syrup, with an associated reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables. 
About three-fourths of the population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils, and most Americans exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. In addition, the dietary intake of many people in our country is above recommended guidelines.
If you remember anything from your basic health class, you can see why these trends and stats can be problematic. Some of the most obvious….
- Being in a calorie surplus for a chronic period of time can lead to weight gain. Thus, it’s no surprise that more than two-thirds of all adults and nearly one-third of all children and youth in the United States are either overweight or obese.
- A diet exceeding calorie recommendations and devoid of adequate vitamins and minerals can increase the risk of developing and dealing with chronic diseases. According to the latest release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 2015, about half of all American adults—117 million individuals—have one or more preventable chronic diseases. With entering a new decade, it’s likely that those numbers have climbed even higher in the past five years.
Not only does this impact people’s health and quality of life, but a 2019 study by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Tufts University in Massachusetts concluded that poor eating habits cost the United States about $300 per person, or $50 billion, a year.
While correlation does not prove causation, fresh evidence continues to be released linking popular processed foods and poor diet quality with a range of health risks. Our bodies are designed for survival, and many of the ways in which we seek out, use, and store food are driven by very old, deeply ingrained motivations. The world we live in, however, is designed for thriving, abundance, and pleasure, leading to an incongruence between what is optimal for our bodies and what our survival instincts are telling us to do. The result is overconsumption and consumption of things that aren’t optimal for our systems. The health problems that come from this (acne, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer) are what researchers call the “diseases of civilization.”
Many people frequently try to isolate a single dietary element as the cause of chronic disease (e.g., the ideas that saturated fat causes heart disease and salt causes high blood pressure). However, the evidence gleaned over the past three decades now indicates that virtually all so-called diseases of civilization have multifactorial dietary elements (along with other environmental agents and genetic susceptibility).
The rising obesity rates and prevalence of chronic diseases does not arise simply from excessive saturated fat in the diet but rather from a complex interaction of multiple nutritional factors directly linked to the excessive consumption of foods commonly found in “Westernized” societies (cereals, refined cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, fatty meats, salt, and combinations of these foods).
Without going into pages of descriptions, there are a number of nutritional factors which have been identified that universally underlie or exacerbate virtually all chronic diseases of civilization: 1) glycemic load, 2) fatty acid composition, 3) macronutrient composition, 4) micronutrient density, 5) acid-base balance, 6) sodium-potassium ratio, and 7) fiber content.
Besides the excess burden of additional calories, emerging research is also pointing to the detrimental effects of the Western diet on our gut bacteria and immune system. As a result, this may exacerbate the complications of being overweight/obese, contribute to the further development of chronic diseases and conditions, and be one of the main drivers in the increase in autoimmune disorders.
Foundational Principles of Healthy Diets
Clearly, there are a great number of reasons to shift away from a “Western” diet. However, thanks to the influx of these popular books and documentaries (not to mention access to Google and the internet), individuals are often overloaded with information about the latest and greatest diet trends. So much so that it causes a great deal of confusion and a sense of complication about what is the right way to eat.
To help clear the picture, US World and News is on its ninth year of publishing a report on the “best diet,” ranking 41 diets on a range of levels, from their heart healthiness to their likelihood to help you lose weight. Each profile explains how the diet works, critically analyzes popular claims, scrutinizes it for possible health risks, and details what it’s like to live on the diet. For example, this year, the Mediterranean diet and DASH diets beat out other eating plans, such as Atkins, Jenny Craig, and SlimFast, to win the “Best Diets Overall” crown.
While we can argue for days about the best dietary approach, the reality is that the most optimal dietary strategies for body composition, health, and well-being rely on a couple of foundational principles. Sadly, these principles are the almost exact opposites of what a Western diet entails.
You see, when people decide to go vegan, or whole 30, or decide to follow other popular big lifestyle changes, they accomplish these changes unwittingly. It’s not about the perfect macronutrient percentages, certain nutrients, or vilifying certain foods and food groups.
As notable author Michael Pollan once said, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Even the authors of the report make it very clear:
”A healthy diet doesn’t require a lot of money, newfangled appliances or subsisting on any kind of scheme that sounds like a gimmick.
Eating well means listening to that little voice inside that knows what healthy foods generally look like – fresh and recognizable in nature – and what they don’t – prepackaged and processed.
The recurring theme across the diets that excelled in healthiness is adequate calories supplied by a heavy load of vegetables, fruits and whole grains; a modest amount of lean protein, nonfat dairy and healthy fats; and an occasional treat. Plants are the foundation, and the menu is always built around minimally processed meals made from scratch.”
Small Changes, Big Impact
When it comes to making positive changes for health, it does not take going to the extreme of eating a vegan diet, following a ketogenic diet, going on the whole 30, or living on powders and supplements. While these extreme approaches tend to result in pretty drastic results, it often causes individuals to form a certain worldview or eating dogma that isn’t necessary.
I’m sure we all know the people who tend to make drastic changes from whatever their normal eating habits are and then take their results as evidence that whatever method or drastic change they made is THE WAY to go.
For example, years ago, nearly anyone you interacted with who did CrossFit would have you bowing down before the Paleo or Whole 30 gods. They switched from however they were eating and made a whole host of dietary changes: They ate more protein, many more vegetables, much less sugar, less alcohol, and the kinds and quantities of fat changed.
They lost weight, felt great, and their performance in the gym improved. But instead of a more scientific approach looking at all the things that were wrong with their starting diet and analyzing the individual changes they made, they jumped straight to the conclusion that X diet was the best way for everyone to eat and proselytized to that end.
The truth is, you can take care of your health and body composition while still enjoying your favorite foods in moderation as long as you stick to eating whole foods and control your calorie intake.
Some of the most simple changes you could make?
- Prioritize Protein
- Eat More Plants
- Stay Hydrated with Non-Caloric Beverages
- Focus on Fiber
- Slash Sugars
There are a whole host of changes that you can make that don’t require you to massively overhaul your diet. And, the cool thing is that when you start to incorporate even just one or two of these habits, the blocks start to stack and you start creating a change that can make way more of an impact than you think.
Ask Yourself the Right Questions
“Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” – Tony Robbins
Closing out this article, I figured it would help to provide a set of questions that you could ask yourself to assess your diet and start implementing small changes to move towards a healthier diet?
- Am I getting at least a palm-sized serving of protein with every meal?
- How many of the components of my meal come with a food label?
- Does my plate have more than one color of food on it?
- How many ingredients are listed on the label of this food?
- In total, how many servings of fruits and vegetables am I getting throughout the day?
- Do any of the beverages I am drinking have sugar in them?
- How long would it take for the food on my plate to go bad?
- Can I pronounce any and all of the ingredients that are in this food?
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. If you identify with having a “westernized” diet, I hope that after reading this article you are armed with knowledge about why your current eating habits may be potentially problematic and have learned a bit on how to make educated choices on how to approach changes.
 (Statovci, D., Aguilera, M., MacSharry, J., & Melgar, S. (2017). The impact of western diet and nutrients on the microbiota and immune response at mucosal interfaces. Frontiers in immunology, 8, 838.)
 Lawrence, M. A., & Baker, P. I. (2019). Ultra-processed food and adverse health outcomes.
 Cordain, L., Eaton, S. B., Sebastian, A., Mann, N., Lindeberg, S., Watkins, B. A., … & Brand-Miller, J. (2005). Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 81(2), 341-354.
 Zinöcker, M. K., & Lindseth, I. A. (2018). The Western diet–microbiome-host interaction and its role in metabolic disease. Nutrients, 10(3), 365.