Reviewing the Impacts of the Western Diet upon Immunity
Ian A. Myles
Nutritional Journal 2014
Mothers influence their child’s dietary preferences while their baby is still in their womb. The food that she enjoys during her pregnancy will shape whether her child eats his vegetables or gorges on high-sugar junk food. From the womb until the age of two, the child inherits his microbiota from his mother. The microbiota is huge amounts of bacteria and flora, that vastly outnumber human cells, and which contribute to our immune, brain, and overall health. It is transferred from mother to child by the birth canal, through breast-feeding, orally by kissing, and topically by touch: touching and loving your young child is as important as breast-feeding. If the mother’s or even grandmother’s microbiota is not optimal then the health and well-being of the child might be compromised. Lest anyone think blame is being attributed solely to mothers, note that epigenetic changes in DNA are passed from father to child. Epigenetic changes in DNA relate to cellular memory, as the information encoded upon DNA is passed from one generation to the next. These cells learn bad memories such as ignoring signs of infection or overreacting to antigens. This adversely affects the child’s immune health.
As we shall hear immunity is affected by numerous dietary and lifestyle choices. A high intake of saturated fat and omega-6 fats, too much refined sugar, overuse of salt, exposure to pollutants and excess stress are damaging our hearts, brains, kidneys, livers, and immune systems. Our bacterial inheritance is compromised. More concerning still is that the first functional gene has been observed jumping species, via the medium of GM foods, into the human gut. Think about that for just a second: a functional gene from another living species has inserted itself into the human gut. The question to be asked is, how is this going to impact upon humans as a species? However, let us start with one of the bugbears of our time—saturated fat.
Saturated fat is back on the menu; butter was recently on the front cover of Time magazine; and the British Medical Journal published a large meta-analysis on heart disease and saturated fat, concluding that there was no evidence of a link between the two. This and other findings have been seized upon by prominent writers and health bloggers, who then promote diets high in saturated fat. It is true that saturated fat is not necessarily harmful when eaten in normal amounts, yet some individuals are advocating almost unlimited consumption of saturated fat—something that no traditional people, with the exception of the Inuit, ever did.
There is another wrinkle. We are all of different ethnicities with different genes and different polymorphisms within those genes. If you carry the E4 allele within the APOE gene, which a good number of you reading this will, and you eat even average amounts of saturated fat then you will most likely develop early onset Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. If you are a Pakistani female over the age of eighteen, and you have polymorphism in the FTO gene, which around 30% of you will, and you eat lots of saturated fat, then you are going to get fat—very fat. This does not mean blame should be attributed to your genes, it’s how you interact with your genes that matters.
Saturated fat when eaten to excess or too frequently can also trigger an inflammatory response. This excess is seen as a bacteria invader, resulting in gut inflammation. This gut inflammation breaks down gut barriers allowing harmful substances to leak from the gut into the bloodstream, contributing to immune dysfunction and poor infection control. Therefore, the key point about saturated fat is not to fear it, but not to eat ridiculous, unlimited amounts either. Without knowing which genes you carry, you might consider consuming the amount that your ancestors ate. Finally, saturated fat is always better than industrial, modern vegetable and seed oils that are high in omega-6. It is to the omega fatty acids that we now turn.
Omega-6 fats are essential, yet in our current times we consume too much. A normal diet will provide more than enough, probably too much, omega-6. Taken in excess, they are highly inflammatory and influence immune response. Mothers who consume an excess of saturated and omega-6 fat during pregnancy are more likely to deliver children with allergic and inflammatory diseases. In contrast, it is well established that omega-3 fats are important. Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory and beneficial for a wide range of diseases, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel syndrome. It’s essential to consume omega-3 fats, without going to extremes. Many of the studies published on the benefit of omega-3 use data taken from populations that consume omega-3 from dietary sources such as fish, rather than from people who decide omega-3 consumption is good, then drink gallons of the stuff every day. Omega-3 supplementation is likely beneficial in dosages recommended by the manufacturer, as opposed to the opinions of some guy you read on the internet.
Aside from fat, gluten is perhaps another problem of our time. Celiac disease caused by gluten sensitivity is on the rise, with North Africans, Pakistanis, Indians, and northern Europeans particularly affected. Gluten sensitivity is also more common, and for people genetically predisposed to an autoimmune disease, gluten may trigger autoimmune disorders. There are two receptors called HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 that allow gluten to act as a super-antigen causing massive inflammation or an autoimmune response. Around 40% of the American population carry these two receptors. Does this therefore mean gluten is to be shunned? Not necessarily. Think about this: the Scots have been consuming wheat for just 150 years, whereas the Syrians have been eating wheat for over 10,000 years. Punjabis have consumed samosa for as long as anyone can remember; Bengalis in contrast prefer their rice. The point is different peoples have traditionally consumed different amounts of gluten. Some populations can tolerate and thrive on wheat, whereas for others gluten will cause inflammation and immune dysfunction.
Our lifestyle impacts dramatically upon our microbiota—the microbes, flora, and bacteria that colonize the human body, which are thought to have a profound effect upon our health. When there is a microbial imbalance, dysbiosis occurs, which is associated with a wide range of illnesses ranging from chronic fatigue to cancer. Our gut bacteria can digest dietary fibers, produce vitamin K, produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and prevent harmful bacteria from gaining a foothold. The consumption of the wrong type or too much dietary fat alters our microbiota, changing immune cell membrane functions and causing inflammation. Simple sugars, such as syrups and plain, regular sugar also cause a bacterial imbalance, as harmful bacteria feed on simple sugars, then start to colonize the gut. Calorie-free artificial sweeteners are not the answer either. Recent studies have shown that gut bacteria can metabolize calorie-free artificial sweeteners into actual calories and provoke an inflammatory response. Current data on artificial sweeteners suggests they cause weight gain at almost the same rate as soft drinks containing sugar, despite being calorie free.
So far the standard Western diet is not doing so well. High fat, or the wrong type of fat, excess sugars, gluten, and a wrecked bacterial inheritance are causing a wide range of illnesses. Many people who are not ill are far from optimal health. Energy is in short supply, fat people are seemingly everywhere, and we are passing all of this crud on to future generations through either cellular changes in DNA or imperfect bacteria. Where things start to get a little more disconcerting is when GM foods are inserted into the equation.
Traditionally, and until very recent times, farmers would use the seeds from their own harvest to plant future crops. These seeds were effectively free. This scenario is rapidly changing as corporations such as Monsanto aggressively promote the planting of GM crops. These corporations own the patent on the seed, such that a farmer cannot plant the seeds that he harvests, but has to go back to the GM crop manufacturer and buy more for the next crop. If he does plant the harvested GM seeds then he is subject to armed intervention from private and federal security forces. Moreover, farmers who use conventional crops, yet live within a certain distance of a GM crop field, are threatened with lawsuits and harassed if they plant their own seeds due to cross-pollination, because the cross-pollinated seeds are patented. These are the economic consequences, the human health consequences are rather more worrying.
When someone thought it a great idea to take genes from Brazil nuts and graft them into soy the effect was allergic reactions in people who ate the soy. The current trend in GM crops is to produce crops that contain pesticide resistant genes. The crops can be absolutely pounded with pesticides such as glyphosate and not die. Yet glyphosate has been shown to induce cellular death in human umbilical, placental, and embryonic cells. This is all bad enough, but we’re not done, things are about to turn even more sinister.
Functional genes ingested by animals via their feed have been assimilated into their gut bacteria. Their gut bacteria has transcribed these genes into functional proteins, and the resulting genetic changes inherited by the animal’s offspring via microbiota transfer from the mother. This is a big deal, a very big deal, something that leading geneticists did not think possible just ten years ago. A gene is transferring from one species to another, resulting in a genetic change that is passed on to subsequent generations.
This is now happening to humans. For the first time a functional industrial, nonhuman gene form has been found in the bacteria of the small bowel of human patients. This is not good, and potentially just the harbinger of what is to come.
One might think that this trans-species gene transfer might be subjected to intense scientific scrutiny. Unfortunately, many well-meaning scientists are prevented from investigating. Cast your mind back for a second to the patents we mentioned that prevent farmers from planting their own seed. The very same patents are stopping scientific investigation: any findings on GM crops, by law, have to be approved by the manufacturers prior to publication.
These findings are important because they are absolutely mainstream, conservative science. To be clear, these findings are not from some whacko, obscure publication. They are published by the Bacterial Pathogenesis Unit at the National Institutes of Health in America—about as mainstream and prestigious as it gets in the United States.
Our body is amazingly resilient to the abuses we subject it to year after year. Often, self-inflicted health problems manifest after middle age. But we’re not getting any younger, most of you are now in your thirties or forties, and if you really think about what you’ve just heard, then potentially we’re screwed. Inflammation is a huge problem of our time, implicated in a vast array of disease. Our diet damages our immune system and microbiota, preventing us from fighting infections and disease, or alternatively ramping up the immune system such that an autoimmune response is triggered. These dietary choices also influence our intellect, our mental and brain health. Perhaps we’re not too bothered about ourselves. However, this utter carnage is being passed on to future generations via the mother’s bacteria or the father’s broken DNA. If all that were not bad enough, illegitimate, Frankenstein, functional, industrial genes are now transferring into animals and humans. Put all of this together and potentially we’re looking at a zombie-like, almost sub-human species. So what to do?
Firstly, stop policing what other people choose to eat. It’s really none of your business, unless it’s someone who needs and would welcome your advice. Remember, we are ethnically different, genetically different, even within the same ethnic groups, and have different health challenges. Therefore, people are going to eat different types of foods with different ratios of macronutrients. There is not a “one-size-fits-all diet.” However, there are some general principles that most agree on.
There is a general consensus that a modern, industrialized, Western diet is going to hurt you. Saturated fat is alright for most people, but don’t eat it to excess, especially if your ancestors didn’t, or Alzheimer’s disease and dementia run in your family. Sugar is extremely problematic, as is an excess of omega-6 fats. Trans-fats are obviously very harmful. Omega-3 is essential in normal, traditional dietary doses. If you’re feeling particularly carefree and foolhardy, then go ahead and indulge in GM foods: it only takes one occasion for a gene to cross species. One’s microbiota needs to be restored. For this you need bacteria from fermented foods such as vegetables, kefir, yogurt, depending on what your ethnic group tolerates best. Even then that bacteria needs the right food in order to populate the gut—refined sugars stop good bacteria. Wheat and grains are going to be good for some but detrimental to others—we have to respect this difference. Short of a gluten sensitivity test, look at when your ancestors started eating gluten, and note any effects upon your own health. And this really is the key point: avoid misbegotten, illegitimate, industrialized foods, restore your microbiota, try to eat as your ancestors did, and even then not too much.
And don’t forget to exercise!