Okay, so you think eating a Western diet is not so bad. Perhaps you get plenty of exercise and you don’t get sick that often.
So you are fine, right? Well guess what: Eating a Western diet is shortening your body’s lifespan. How do we know that for sure? Besides the many studies that have followed death rates, we now have a newer measurement to confirm earlier death: telomere length.
What this means is if you eat a Western diet, you won’t live as long, because telomere length is linked directly to lifespan. This is the lifespan of cells, and your entire body is made of cells. So the quicker your body’s cells die – the quicker your body dies.
What is the Western diet?
The Western diet means a diet rich in refined sugary drinks and snack foods, red meats, processed meats, eggs, refined grains, baked foods using white flours, and fried foods. Especially prominent – and lethal – in the Western diet is fried meats.
The Western diet also contains reduced amounts of vegetables and whole grains.
Specific food examples of the Western diet include sodas, cookies, cakes, white rice, beef, sausage, bacon, fried eggs, sugary cereals, white bread and bagels, pancakes, French fries, candy, potato chips, hamburgers, French toast, pancakes, grilled meats and many others.
This is the diet consumed by a majority of the populations in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Germany, France and other EU countries. Elsewhere, the Western diet is increasingly being eaten – along with a greater incidence of disease and early death.
In Asia, for example, the expansion of the Western diet is associated with exponential rates of cancer, heart disease, liver diseases, kidney diseases, dementia and many other conditions. This adds to the proliferation of white rice robbed of its germ, which has dramatically increased rates of diabetes in Asian countries.
In my book, “The Ancestors Diet,” I lay out the clear research evidence supporting this notion that many diseases are truly associated with the Western diet.
But what about people who have eaten a Western diet and lived til they were 90 years old?
First, this is what you call anecdotal information. It ignores the broad base of scientific data and selects those few people who managed to survive longer. This is a grossly unscientific method. The scientific process is to look at large population trends along with diet and disease data.
Besides, today there are extraordinary measures that modern medicine takes to extend years, including heart surgery and angioblasty. This means those who lived until 90 years old could have potentially lived until they were 100.
Telomere length and aging
Over the past decade, numerous studies have shown that telomere length is directly associated with lifespan. The human genome research has progressed with lightning speed over the past 15 years.
What are telomeres? Telomeres lie at the end of our chromosomes – the long swirling proteins that make up our genes. The telomeres protect the ends of these chromosomes from becoming damaged.
But each time our cells divide, our telomeres become shorter. And as the telomeres become shorter, they allow for greater damage to the chromosomes – our genes.
But other research has established that telomeres can also be shortened by lifestyles, environmental factors and diets. This is because higher rates of toxicity lead to free radical damage of the genes and their telomeres.
This potential of genetic damage means our cells will die faster. Cells will typically die when their genes become damaged and they mutate – forcing the kill switch within the cell and within the immune system.
In other words, telomere length becomes somewhat of a cellular clock of sorts. The shorter our telomere length, the more quickly our cells will die. And the quicker our bodies will die.
Western diet shortens telomeres
Researchers from South Korea’s Kookmin University tested 5,014 people between the ages of 40 and 69 years old. These were included in the Korean Genome Epidemiology Study, which is an ongoing genome study.
The researchers examined each of the subjects at the Korea University Ansan Hospital. The doctors measured blood pressure and other cardiovascular parameters for each patient, and then interviewed each for medical history, family history, lifestyles and diet.
The researchers actually followed the subjects over the previous ten years, using extensive food frequency histories and genetic screenings. The doctors eliminated many people who may have had confounding health conditions or other things that might have created bias.
About 2,000 people remained, who completed all the assessments that included a current assessment and examination. Current analyses of their chomosomes and genetic makeup in general were also made at the end of the study.
Because the subjects had been followed over this ten-year period, the researchers also had accumulated changes in their genetic information.
The doctors found those who had been eating more foods considered part of the Western Diet during the previous ten years had significantly shorter telomere lengths. That is, compared to those who ate fewer foods considered the Western diet.
The food frequency data included categories to compare the diets of each person on consumption and serving size for 103 foods and beverages. The FFQ data assembly organized the data using the average consumption frequency of a food with ‘almost never’, ‘once a month’, ‘2–3 times a month’, ‘1-2 times a week’, ‘3-4 times a week’, ‘5-6 times a week’, ‘once a day’, ‘twice a day’ or ‘3 times a day.’ The serving size included ‘larger than’, ‘equal to’ or ‘smaller than’ a standard serving size.
This allowed the scientists to truly gauge the data to tease out relationships between one’s diet and telomere length and change over the past ten years.
Regarding the diet, the researchers wrote:
“We identified two major factors and generated factor scores using factor analysis. The first factor labeled ‘prudent dietary pattern’ was characterized by high intake of whole grains, seafood, legumes, vegetables and seaweed, whereas the second factor labeled ‘Western dietary pattern’ was characterized by high intake of refined grain, red meat or processed meat and sweetened carbonated beverages.”
The scientists found those who ate more of the “prudent dietary pattern” had longer telomere length than those who ate more of the “Western dietary pattern.
This led to a clear conclusion:
“Our findings suggest that diet in the remote past, that is, 10 years earlier, may affect the degree of biological aging in middle-aged and older adults.”
Not the first study connecting telomere length and diet
As mentioned above my book covers an extensive collection of evidence to establish the connection between the Western diet and early death. Other studies have found that telomere length is associated with the many diseases that cause early death.
So associating a greater level of these diseases with the Western diet comes with overwhelming evidence.
In addition, two other recent studies have found that a diet that more closely adheres to the Mediterranean diet is associated with longer telomere length.
One of these studies was from the Columbia University Medical Center. The doctors studied 1,743 New York residents, and found that reduced meat consumption and a greater consumption of a plant-based diet resulted in longer telomere lengths.
Can we lengthen our telomeres?
So if you change your diet can you change your telomere length? The research is confirming that you will definitely sustain your current telomere length longer, and possibly even lengthen them. While telomere damage may have already taken place by ones past diet, epigenetic studies reveal that current changes can affect telomere length positively.
Definitely, making positive changes in ones diet and lifestyle can sustain your current telomere length longer. And there is a likelihood that at least in some cases, dietary changes can result in increased length.
Lee JY, Jun NR, Yoon D, Shin C, Baik I. Association between dietary patterns in the past and telomere length. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015 Sep;69(9):1048-52. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2015.58.
Gu Y, Honig LS, Schupf N, Lee JH, Luchsinger JA, Stern Y, Scarmeas N. Mediterranean diet and leukocyte telomere length in a multi-ethnic elderly population. Age (Dordr). 2015;37(2):24. doi: 10.1007/s11357-015-9758-0. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11357-015-9758-0
Boccardi V, Esposito A, Rizzo MR, Marfella R, Barbieri M, Paolisso G. Mediterranean diet, telomere maintenance and health status among elderly. PLoS One. 2013 Apr 30;8(4):e62781. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062781.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.