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Step away from the burger: Why a 'Western' diet is bad for your health

Meera Senthilingam | 7/7/2015, 10 a.m.
The developing world is seeing rapid urbanization, with more than half of the world's population now living in cities and ...
A woman prepares to take a bite out of a cheeseburger. The sandwich from Fatburger is topped with lettuce and tomato. (Photo: Brent Butler/CNN)

— The developing world is seeing rapid urbanization, with more than half of the world's population now living in cities and this figure expected to reach 70% by 2050.

But with this progression comes an urban lifestyle -- often meaning less physical activity and the consumption of a "Western" diet.

"[There's a] nutrition transition occurring around the world," says David Tilman, professor of Ecology at the University of Minnesota. In a recent study, Tilman explored global trends in diet choices and the link between these diets and health.

"People around the world, as incomes go up, choose more calories and meat in their diet," says Tilman. The result? Potentially disastrous consequences on health and an increased risk of disease.

"We have a whole new group of people who are malnourished because they eat foods that are no good for them, that have no nutritional benefit," says Tilman. The trend contradicts the more traditional causes of malnutrition.

Also on the rise is access to, and consumption of, processed foods.

"Processed foods have low nutritional value," says Tilman, who describes processed food as having empty calories. "Diets low in fruit and vegetables have a strong negative health impact," he says.

And a diet high in processed foods -- and generally a modern "Western" diet -- is even worse.

What is a Western diet?

"The biggest features [of a Western diet] are overconsumption of over-refined sugars, highly refined and saturated fats, animal protein and a reduced intake of plant-based fibers," says Ian Myles, from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This translates to a diet high in fat, red meat, salt and sugars, and low in fiber.

"Too many calories in general," says Myles -- a trend aided by the move towards a culture of fast food.

But what impact can this diet have on your health?

Increasing your risk of infection

According to Myles, highly processed and refined foods, common to Western meals, are disliked by the body. "It throws your immune system off kilter," he says.

The biggest culprits in Myles' eyes are foods containing fructose and palmitic acid -- ingredients found commonly in candy bars -- which can kick-start an immune reaction.

"[Palmitic acid] can be confused by the body with bacteria like E.Coli," says Myles. The body then starts an immune attack against the supposed bacteria, which results in a low level of inflammation.

Distracting the immune system in this way means immune cells won't be as ready to attack when facing a real infection. "It throws off the way your body responds...and by the time you recognize it, it will have gotten worse," says Myles.

However, the effect is reversible.

A change in diet to remove exposure to these food components can restore immune activity back to its normal state, according to Myles. "That low-grade inflammation will change," he says.

Changing your gut bacteria

Your gut microbes play a crucial role in the health and wellbeing of not only your gut, but your whole body.

"Every person carries about 1kg of microbes inside them," says Jeremy Nicholson, head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London. According to Nicholson, the body's gut microbes are heavily connected with the control of the immune system, which in turn controls inflammation.