Culture Question:

Western Food: A Warning
(in response to a general query about Western Food)

(posted: Nov 2009)

From the outside, the Western diet can look appealing, with its fancy packaging and focus on convenience. The foods are often fast to prepare (just heat in the microwave, or open a can and cook on the stove) and quick to eat. And if you don’t want to do even that much cooking there are plenty of fast food restaurants in the West that will feed you quickly. Many modern ‘foods’ in the Western diet can also be eaten easily while driving or at a computer, as a growing number of Westerners are eating in their cars or while working.

All of this convenience has come with a cost. As Michael Pollan outlines in his book “In Defense of Food”:

Early in the twentieth century, an intrepid group of doctors and medical workers stationed overseas observed that wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. (pp 10-11)

To repeat, the diet related health problems arising from a Western diet include:

  1. Obesity (people getting very, very fat)
  2. Diabetes
  3. Cardiovascular diseases (heart related problems)
  4. Cancer

The changing Western diet has come about as a result of the industrialization of food. Aspects of this industrialization include:

  1. Processing foods heavily, to make it an industrial product - all the same, easy to package, ship and sell, and resistant to spoiling.
  2. Refining grains and sugars
  3. Using chemicals to raise plants and animals
  4. A move towards monocultures (a single crop being planted, or a single animal raised) in agriculture on a massive scale
  5. Food being grown with a focus on speed, giving less time for nutrients to develop.
  6. Most food coming from just a few staple crops: wheat, corn, soy (processed to make many ‘foods’, or the ingredients for many ‘foods’ or fed to animals which are then processed)

I have been putting quotes around the word ‘food’ because many of the processed ‘foods’ that are available to us may be edible (we can eat them), but it is debatable whether they should actually be called food. Many of them are very good at providing our bodies with energy (in the form of calories), but do not contain much that nourishes our bodies (vitamins, minerals, micro-nutrients).

The Western diet today all too often contains lots of processed ‘foods’ and meat, lots of added fat and sugar and not much whole grains, fruits or vegetables. This is not a model for building healthy bodies.

The secret is to avoid heavily processed ‘foods’. Eat as much fresh, whole, unprocessed food as you can. Generally, the traditional cuisine of a country or culture (including cultures in the West) has been tried and tested over many generations and will provide a healthy guide to eating. There are many traditional dishes from the many cultures of the West that can be part of a delicious way to eat. It is not that dishes from the West are unhealthy, but rather that the modern Western diet with its focus on processed ‘foods’ is not very good for your body.

I will leave you with Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”


  1. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food, The Penguin Press, New York. 2008.

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Book cover: Indefense of Food


Further Reading:

Nutrition, Food Science and the American Diet – transcript of an interview with Michael Pollan

Six Rules for Eating Wisely

The Cheapest Calories make you Fattest – an interview with Michael Pollan