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How Western diets are killing us

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Junk food


*Sausages, bacon, steak cause fatty liver disease
*Eating foods high in fat, sugar raises sepsis risk

Again, several but new studies have provided evidence how Western diets are increasing the risk of death among all populations.Before now, local scientists including a consultant pharmacognocist and Chief Executive Officer of Bioresources Conservation and Development Programme (BCDP), Prof. Maurice, had warned that the rise consumption of foreign foods has led to lowered population immunity and proliferation of non communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, kidney and liver damage, and cancer.According to one large new study, eating more ultraprocessed foods — such as sugary drinks and ready-made meals — increases the risk of all-cause mortality.

Rising obesity and diabetes rates have spurred furious research into the exact role of the “Western diet.”Earlier studies showed that high levels of sugar and fat can have a detrimental impact on various systems of the body.However, the full scale of the damage is only coming into focus now.As part of this new push to examine the impacts of diet on health and longevity, a group of French scientists focused on ultraprocessed foods.

The term “ultraprocessed” refers to food products that manufacturers have put through industrial processes and contain a range of ingredients. Some examples include sugary drinks, breads, ready-made meals, confectionaries, and processed meats.According to the authors of the latest study published in JAMA International Medicine, scientists have already linked ultraprocessed products with a range of conditions, including “obesity, hypertension, and cancer.”

They are generally high in energy, fat, and sugar or salt, and low in fiber, which helps explain their links to disease risk. However, on top of this, they tend to contain a range of artificial ingredients that might also play a role in some conditions.One recent study concluded that eating more ultraprocessed foods could increase cancer risk.Such products tend to be cheap to produce and affordable for consumers; and, according to some research, ultraprocessed foods “dominate the food supplies of high-income countries.”

In fact, ultraprocessed foods account for around 57.9 percent of the energy intake for the U.S.Although scientists had previously linked ultraprocessed foods to many health conditions, until now, none had examined their impact on overall mortality.Also, a new study suggests that people who eat lots of sausages, bacon and steak are more at risk of liver disease.

A study found those whose main source of protein comes from animal products are 54 per cent more likely to develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) than those who eat a more plant-based diet. Red meat in particular is a high source of saturated fat, which may accumulate in the liver and eventually cause the organ to fail.Experts hope the study will encourage people to adopt a Mediterranean diet rich in fish, whole grains and vegetables.

The research was carried out by the Erasmus MC University Medical Centre in Rotterdam and led by Dr. Sarwa Darwish Murad, from the department of gastroenterology and hepatology. NAFLD describes a range of conditions caused by a build-up of fat in the liver that has not been triggered by alcohol.

A healthy liver should have next to no fat, with even just small amounts being defined as the early stages of NAFLD.Although not particularly serious in its initial stages, NAFLD can lead to severe liver damage, including scarring – known as cirrhosis – which can cause deadly liver failure.

To determine how food can influence a person’s NAFLD risk, the researchers examined the dietary questionnaires and liver fat scans of 3,882 adults with an average age of 70. None of the participants were taking steatogenic drugs or had viral hepatitis, both of which can cause fat to accumulate in the liver. Some 34 per cent (1,337) of them had NAFLD, of which 1,205 were overweight. Results – published in the journal Gut – revealed those who were overweight and ate the most animal protein were 54 per cent more likely to have NAFLD than those who consumed the least animal protein.

This remained the same after adjusting for socioeconomic factors and lifestyle, according to Dr. Darwish Murad. “Perhaps most importantly, the association was independent of total caloric intake,” she said. The participants without NAFLD actually ate more calories than those with the condition at 2,052kcal compared to 1,996kcal. And the amount of calories from protein-rich foods was also similar between the two groups, at 16 per cent in those with NAFLD versus 15.4 per cent in the participants without the disease.

Meanwhile, Napier said: “The mice’s immune system on the Western diet looked and functioned differently. It looks like the diet is manipulating immune cell function so that you’re more susceptible to sepsis, and then when you get sepsis, you die quicker.” The researchers said the findings could help hospitals monitor the diets of patients in intensive care as they are more vulnerable to sepsis.

“If you know that a diet high in fat and sugar correlates with increased susceptibility to sepsis and increased mortality, when those patients are in the Intensive Care Unit, you can make sure they’re eating the right fats and the right ratio of fats,” Napier added.“If you could introduce a dietary intervention while they’re in the ICU to decrease their chances of manipulating their immune system in that way, you can somehow influence the outcome.”

“We can look at their blood and say, ‘We need to treat them more aggressively than the person next door who doesn’t have chronic inflammation and doesn’t have these cell populations in their blood’,” Napier said.The team is now looking at whether the risks are due to specific fats in the diet. “If it’s the fats in the diet that are doing the reprogramming, then it’ll be applicable to any diet that’s high-fat like the ketogenic diet or any sort of Atkins-related diet,” Napier said.

“We also showed that a diverse diet is important,” Dr. Darwish Murad said. Professor Shira Zelber-Sagi, head of nutrition, health and behavior at the University of Haifa in Israel – who was not involved in the study – believes the research demonstrates the importance of a plant-based diet to minimise the risk of NAFLD.

“Meat contains saturated fat, especially red meat, which induces fatty liver,” she said.And processed meat – which has been modified to extend its shelf life or change its taste – can cause inflammation and insulin resistance, which both contribute to NAFLD, Professor Zelber-Sagi adds.

Insulin resistance prevents the body responding to the blood sugar-lowering hormone, which can trigger diabetes. Professor Zelber-Sagi advises people limit their consumption of red or processed meat and opt for a Mediterranean diet.

Meanwhile the JAMA Internal Medicine research took data from the French NutriNet-Santé Study. In total, they followed 44,551 individuals aged 45 or older for an average of 7.1 years.Each volunteer completed a web-based form that asked about their food intake, and they provided information about their lifestyle, weight, height, levels of physical activity, and socioeconomic status.

The scientists saw that consuming higher levels of ultraprocessed foods was associated with being younger, earning less, having a lower level of education, living alone, exercising less, and having a higher body mass index (BMI).As they expected, even after adjusting for a range of factors, higher levels of ultraprocessed foods in the diet were associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.

Overall, a 10 percent increase in the amount of ultraprocessed food consumed equated to a 14 percent increase in mortality risk.The authors conclude: “Findings from this prospective study of a large French cohort suggest for the first time, to our knowledge, that an increased proportion of ultraprocessed foods in the diet is associated with a higher risk of overall mortality.”

Why the risk? The scientists believe that the negative impact of ultraprocessed food on longevity is likely due to the factors mentioned above — namely, high sodium, fat, sugar, and salt content, low fiber, and a range of artificial additives.These additives commonly include emulsifiers, which, according to some studies, might be linked with metabolic syndrome and obesity.Also, there may be a role for chemicals that are produced during the manufacture of these foods. For instance, when people cook some foods at a high temperature, it can produce acrylamide, which some experts think may be carcinogenic.

The authors also note some shortfalls in the study. For instance, participants in the NutriNet-Santé Study tend to be more health conscious than the population at large.They also mention the risk of reverse causation — in other words, if somebody develops a chronic disease, their dietary patterns might change. For instance, if someone developed a condition that made it harder for them to move around their kitchen, they might become more reliant on ready-made meals.

As ever, more research is needed to knock the kinks out of these data. That said, this is the largest study of its type and is confirmed by earlier studies examining health-related questions.As the age of ultraprocessed foods marches on, this type of research is more necessary than ever.

Also, scientists have said Western diet high in fat and sugar could increase your risk of dying from sepsis. Sepsis occurs when the body reacts to an infection by attacking its own organs and tissues.Researchers came to the conclusion by studying mice and found the link exists irrespective of someone’s gut health and weight.However, they are yet to discover the specific parts of the unhealthy diet that are to blame, suggesting a high-fat diet like the keto or Atkins diet could also be a risk.

Researchers have suggested hospitals could focus more attention on patients with poor diet to make sure they do not get sepsis.The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help to predict which patients are at high risk for severe sepsis or who may need more aggressive treatment.

Causes of sepsis are already known to be as a result of an injury or minor infection, and people at most risk are those with a medical condition or receiving medical treatment that weakens their immune system, those already in hospital and the young and elderly. Sepsis has similar symptoms to flu, gastroenteritis and a chest infection.

These include: Slurred speech or confusion; Extreme shivering or muscle pain; Passing no urine in a day; Severe breathlessness; It feels like you are dying; and Skin mottled or discoloured.Symptoms in children are: Fast breathing; Fits or convulsions; Mottled, bluish or pale skin; Rashes that do not fade when pressed; Lethargy; and Feeling abnormally cold.

Under fives may be vomiting repeatedly, not feeding or not urinating for 12 hours. Anyone can develop sepsis but it is most common in people who have recently had surgery, have a urinary catheter or have stayed in hospital for a long time.Other at-risk people include those with weak immune systems, chemotherapy patients, pregnant women, the elderly and the very young.

Treatment varies depending on the site of the infection but involves antibiotics, intravenous (IV) fluids and oxygen, if necessary.At least 46,000 people die every year in the United Kingdom (U.K.) as a result of the disease, which is an immune response to infection that leads to organ failure.

During the study, led by Brooke Napier, an assistant biology professor at Portland State University, mice were fed two different diets.The first was a Western diet (WD), characterised as being low in fibre and high in fat and sugar. The other diet was a standard fibre-rich diet (SC).

Mice eating WD showed an increase in chronic inflammation, sepsis severity and higher mortality rates than mice that were fed a normal diet.
Professor Napier said the findings suggest the mice had more severe sepsis and were dying faster because of something in their diet, not because of the weight gain or bacteria in their gut.

The Western diet is loosely defined as one full of fatty and sugary foods, such as burgers, fries and soda. Health effects have been linked to things such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer and dementia. The study said “the diet may be directly regulating the innate immune system through an unknown mechanism.”


In this article:
Sarwa Darwish Murad
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