Is there anything more American and delicious than a Texas-size T-bone steak with French fries fixed just the way Grandma used to? Just writing about it makes my mouth water. And how often does the “All American Breakfast,” consisting of fried eggs, bacon, grits and two biscuits with gravy, tempt me?
Like so many of my peers, it took a heart attack to change my habits.
It’s not surprising that the Western diet is unhealthy. A recent study published in the American Journal of Medicine followed 3,800 men and 1,600 women, with an average age of 51, from 1985 to 2009. Researchers monitored their diet and assessed their mental and physical abilities.
Those who “aged ideally” maintained excellent strength, cognitive function and had no chronic diseases. Those who “aged normally” had few chronic diseases and average mental and physical abilities. By the end of this study, 73 percent aged normally and 4 percent aged ideally.
None of the subjects who consumed a typical Western diet aged ideally. They were much more likely to have heart disease and physical and cognitive disabilities. Furthermore, consuming the Western diet was associated with higher death rates from cardiac and non-cardiac causes.
The typical Western diet is high in saturated animal fats and rich in the unhealthy Omega-6 fatty acids. Many foods are fried, and sugary drinks and rich desserts are common.
While deep-fried foods may taste great, they are definitely not good for your health. Most of their calories come from fat, which, because of the frying process, becomes saturated, and the predominant fatty acids are the omega-6s. All saturated fats, irrespective of the source, and all omega-6 fatty acids increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels and that in turn leads to atherosclerosis, which is the underlying cause of coronary artery disease, strokes and impaired blood supply to the lower limbs. The problem is made worse as many restaurants add trans fats to their fryers to improve stability, allowing the oils to be used for longer periods of time. And the longer they are used for frying, the worse the health effects.
And then there is a problem with red meat. The higher the fat content, the tastier the meat. Until recently, it was thought that red meat increased the risk of vascular disease exclusively because of its high content of saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids. Producing leaner cuts of meat and grilling rather than frying was thought to be healthier. Similarly, organic red meat is said to be healthier as meat from grass-fed cattle has higher concentrations of the healthier omega 3 fatty acids.
Sadly, fat content is not the only reason red meat is unhealthy.
New research published in the journal Nature Medicine has shown that bacteria in the bowel convert carnitine, a chemical contained in red meat, into a compound called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which enters the blood stream and damages blood vessels. This in turn facilitates the deposition of cholesterol, leading to significant vascular disease.
The researchers also showed that a diet high in carnitine stimulated the proliferation of these bacteria causing greater production of trimethylamine-N-oxide and, hence, a higher risk of severe vascular disease. Subjects consuming a diet high in red meat had higher levels of carnitine and the damaging oxide in their blood and a much greater risk of heart attacks and strokes. By contrast, vegetarians and vegans had low carnitine and TMAO levels and a much lower risk of vascular disease.
If we want to live long and live well, we must consider how and what we eat. It may not be how much but which foods we eat that contribute to longevity and disease-free life. Every day more and more evidence touts the Mediterranean diet that is rich in fish, nuts, olive oil and abundant fruits and vegetables.
If you must have those delicious foods that we grew up with, moderation is the key. We must saute rather than fry, keep animal fats to a minimum, stick to olive and canola oil, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and limit red meats to one serving a week. Our hearts and even our brains will thank us for it.
Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the book Breaking the Rules of Aging.
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