Do you know what the top ten sources of calories in the American diet are? They are, in this exact order: grain-based desserts, yeast bread, chicken dishes, soda drinks, pizza, alcoholic beverages, pasta, Mexican dishes, beef dishes, and dairy desserts. Also, hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and potato chips are also some of the western diet favorites.

The problem is not just in the choice of food, but in its amount too. The average American eats much more than most adults should eat to maintain their weight. This way of life has to take a toll on one’s health.

In 2012 there were 700,000 deaths from strokes, heart disease, and diabetes. Most of these health conditions can be linked to bad dietary habits. Knowing that 36.6% of adults eat fast food on any given day, this number isn’t that surprising.

But what exactly is the role of the typical western diet in inflammatory autoimmune diseases? In this article, we’ll try to figure that out.

What’s in the food we are eating?

Now that you know what most of the western diet consists, you should also know what’s in all these foods. These dishes are often full of saturated fats, synthetic trans fats, and refined sugars. Why? Because these make processed foods more flavorful and last longer.

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While convenient and cheap, highly-processed food contains insufficient amounts of the nutrients you need to maintain your health and weight, such as fiber and healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids). So, not only that you are consuming harmful nutrients, but you are also depriving yourself of the essential ingredients for optimal health.

The impact of the western diet on the gut

If you have an autoimmune disease, you are probably familiar with the “leaky gut” syndrome. Leaky gut or intestinal permeability is caused or worsened by eating inflammatory foods. Inflammation is a common symptom of many autoimmune diseases.

What happens to your organism when you eat “inflammatory foods”? There are trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and yeasts, living in the digestive tract. Their collective name is microbiome, and their task is to regulate immunity and metabolism. Eating food high in sugars and fat attacks the essential bacteria in the gut, thus disrupting the balance, causing inflammation, and worsening the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

The western diet and the immune system

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As we have mentioned, one of the duties of the microbiome is to regulate the immune system. When the balance in the gut is lost, the body tries to fight off the bacteria it considers a threat, thus triggering an inflammatory response.

This leads your body to the condition of chronic, low-grade inflammation in which it is always finding stimuli to be a threat. Sometimes it successfully identifies a real threat; other times it blindly attacks its own tissues, cells, and internal organs, causing an autoimmune disease.

For example, evidence suggests that the imbalance in the microbiome can directly cause Chron’s disease (an autoimmune condition). A study published in 2017 states that restoring the balance by removing the bad and reintroducing the good bacteria may be an effective treatment for many autoimmune diseases, including Chrone’s.

Western diet and inflammatory autoimmune diseases

Specifically, autoimmune diseases which share the hallmark of inflammation are rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, Chrone’s disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.

We cannot exclude the genetic factor when it comes to the development of these conditions. However, it is essential to note that an individual’s lifestyle can also contribute. This is why we see more inflammatory diseases in Western societies than in developing countries.

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The excess calorie intake and the frequent consumption of processed foods favor the development of autoimmunity. Numerous food and food components consumed in western societies are increasing the risk of inflammations and obesity, which can be a predisposal for autoimmune diseases. This makes it compulsory to prevent the accumulation of unhealthy fats and refined sugars; not only for preventing autoimmunity but also for improving the overall health.

Healthier alternatives to the western diet

After these facts, it must be clear to you that to prevent the development of an autoimmune disease or keep it under control, there is a need for a change in lifestyle, particularly in your diet.

There are several types of diets recommended for prevention and treatment of autoimmune diseases. All of them have two common denominators: the exclusion of inflammatory foods and the inclusion of nutrient-rich ingredients.

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For instance, many patients with autoimmunity lately rely on the Autoimmune Protocol diet (AIP) to decrease inflammation and heal gut dysfunction. This is a modification of the Paleo diet aimed specifically at individuals with autoimmunity. It eliminates allergenic and inflammatory foods and food components. Some of its basic rules include avoiding eggs, nightshade vegetables, nuts and seeds, and food additives. After some time of strictly following the rules, you can start reintroducing certain food groups which proved not to be harmful to you.

Other diet approaches you can try are basic Paleo, fasting, keto diet, and low-starch diet.

Make better food choices

If you don’t want to stick to a rigorous eating schedule, there are some clear guidelines you can follow to improve your overall diet:

  • Eat more plant-based foods, but try to keep an eye on their inflammatory potential.
  • Eat less salt and sugar. If you really can’t imagine a meal without them, try some healthier options like Himalayan salt, stevia, yacon syrup, and honey.
  • Switch bad fat for healthy fat. Good fat is found in salmon, olive, canola, etc.
  • Choose organic foods which are not contaminated by pesticides, chemicals, and toxins.
  • You can eat some processed foods, but keep an eye on what’s good for you. For example, you are free to eat canned fruits and vegetables, canned fish, fermented veggies, and hummus.
  • Make a habit out of eating healthy. It doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many delicious recipes which support healthy gut and metabolism, so don’t look at it as a sacrifice you have to make.

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Autoimmune diseases sound terrifying because your organism is basically attacking itself, so it seems like you have to win a battle against your body. While this can be confusing, it is clear that the western diet is definitely not your ally in this battle. On the contrary, many studies and experiences suggest that the popular foods in this society can only contribute to the inflammation; they increase the risk of developing autoimmunity or worsening the symptoms of an existing condition.

Following an AIP diet plan or simply replacing bad habits for good ones may make a huge difference for your overall health.

Caitlin Evans
Author

Caitlin is a bookworm and a writer. She is also a medical student especially interested in psychology, neuroscience, and well-being. When she is not trying to find the meaning of life and Universe, Caitlin is researching and writing about various health and lifestyle-related topics. She is happily addicted to art in all its forms, grilled tofu, and long walks.