The Western Diet and Inflammation: We’re Eating Ourselves to an Early Grave

western-dietA fire is brewing inside the body of the modern man; a fire that causes widespread damage, subtly harming various tissues, impairing libido, reproduction, and athletic performance, and initiating disease-causing processes (1, 2, 3, 4). The fire is not clearly visible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It doesn’t make a lot of noise – it’s “silently” burning in the background and can be difficult to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Most doctors don’t spot this fire – they are trained to look for molecular mechanisms underlying disease, typically paying little attention to the root causes of illness. They may have heard or read that chronic inflammation is at the root of many health conditions, but since they have no medicines at their disposal that effectively combat inflammation, they have few good treatment options to offer their patients – who may be looking for quick and easy solutions to their health problems. Consequently, instead of providing their patients with the tools they need to effectively put out their internal fire, they prescribe drugs or creams that temporarily patch up some of the “burnt” areas of their patients’ bodies.

These quick fixes mask some of the symptoms of inflammation, but unfortunately they do little to remedy the underlying problems that triggered the fire to ignite in the first place. As long as the root causes are not being addressed, the supply of wood and gasoline remains constant – or may even increase – and the fire keeps burning.

What’s fueling the fire that’s burning inside the modern man?

But what is it that provides the fuel that this fire needs to keep burning? Why does the fire never seem to stop burning? The answer to these questions is probably a quite simple one, however, it does seem to elude some people, in particular those who don’t get what the whole Paleo and ancestral health thing is all about.

Scientists have devoted much attention to the question of what causes the chronic inflammation that is present in the body of many modern people. Different researchers have different theories, and to an untrained eye, it may seem like there is no scientific consensus as to why we become inflamed or what we can do to cool down the body once it is inflamed. However, to a trained eye, patterns emerge.

Studies have shown that many different factors can trigger the development of chronic, low-grade inflammation. What most of these factors have in common is that they are all components of the modern environment (1, 23, 5). They were not present in the distant past; they are novel introductions to the human life. The stimuli induced by drugs, cigarette smoke, processed food, etc. are foreign to the human genome – it has scant evolutionary experience with dealing with these types of environmental agents.

Imagine that the human genome is a piano and that the environment is the player that sits at this piano. If another player replaces the one that is currently playing, the piano will receive new inputs and new songs will be released. This is what has happened inside the human body over the past millennia. The piano has stayed largely the same, but the player has been replaced many times. The one that plays today is very different from the one that played 12.000 years ago.

The piano song that is playing inside the body of the modern man is not as harmonious and pleasant as the one that was playing inside the body of the Paleolithic man. The modern song is signaling that bad things are happening and that inflammatory compounds are being produced. If the development of these compounds are not properly regulated, bodily harm may occur and disease may arise.

The inflammatory status of your body is partly determined by what types of foods you’re eating

Among all of the environmental agents that make up the inflammatory part of the modern milieu, one has a particularly important role to play in all of this. You may have guessed it, the agent I’m talking about is diet. Food has a powerful impact on immunity and gene expression (1, 2, 6, 7)  Your diet can either contribute to making you healthy, or it can contribute to making you sick; it all depends on what it consists of.

In general, modern diets differ markedly from the type of diet that we humans evolved to eat. This is particularly true for contemporary Western-style, processed diets, which are high in processed food, CAFO-produced, fatty meats, refined grains, and dairy foods. This type of diet sweeps through the human body like a hurricane, increasing the permeability of the intestine, fueling the growth of proinflammatory gut bugs, raising levels of LDL cholesterol, and impairing hormonal health (1, 2, 8).

One of the main problems with the western diet is that its nutritional characteristics are completely different from that of ancestral human diets. It’s rich in sugar, salt, starch, omega-6, and trans-fat – nutrients that made up a very small part of the diets our primal forebears ate – and it’s low in fiber, omega-3, and protein – nutrients that were an essential part of the diets that conditioned the human genome.

By itself, inadequate or excessive intake of just one of these nutrients can cause harm. If you take in evolutionarily abnormal levels of all of them, really bad things can happen. Unfortunately, this is what a lot of people in the western world are doing: they eat sugary cereals with skimmed milk for breakfast, snack on refined grain products and processed convenience foods for lunch, and eat fast food for dinner. Sometimes they may eat healthier, more balanced meals, but as a whole, their diet is not healthy – far from it.

How can food make you inflamed?

Modern diets can induce inflammation via several different mechanisms. The high intake of sugar and saturated fat trigger adverse changes in microbiota composition, increases the permeability of the intestine, and activates receptors involved in regulating the body’s immune defenses (1, 9). Moreover, it raises the levels of fatty substances in the blood and causes a build-up of fat in adipose tissue, as well as perhaps in some non-adipose organs (e.g., the liver). The body is poorly adapted to harbor massive amounts of fat mass. It functions well up to a certain point, but when too much triglyceride accumulates, fat cells may expand excessively and burst, inflammatory cytokines are released, and insulin resistance develops.

By itself, this is bad. When it’s combined with a high intake of salt and a low intake of omega-3 and fiber, it’s really bad. Beneficial gut bugs won’t get the nutrients they need to flourish, and hence, they may be incapable of performing their job of maintaining immune homeostasis in the gut; the body won’t have access to sufficient amounts of ice (e.g., omega-3) it can use to cool down the inflammatory fire that’s burning; and blood pressure and the production of the inflammatory compound c-reactive protein increase as a result of elevations in blood levels of sodium chloride.

No wonder so many people get acne vulgaris, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other inflammation-related diseases these days. Chronic low-grade inflammation is obviously not the only cause of chronic disease, but it’s definitely an important one.

Last words

I suspect that diet-induced inflammation is on top of the list of factors that are driving the worldwide increase in the prevalence of cancer, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, and other inflammation-related diseases. Drugs and vaccines won’t help us combat these conditions: We have to change how we eat! The ancestral health movement is contributing to making this happen by promoting a diet and lifestyle that act as a fire distinguisher inside the human body. Diet changes, by itself, is rarely sufficient to bring about full resolution of chronic inflammation; however, there is no doubt in my mind that if everyone in the world took up a healthy diet, inflammation-related disease would decrease in prevalence and people all over the world would become leaner and healthier.

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