The Western Diet, Disastrous for the Environment


Learn how the standard American diet, also called the Western diet, harms people and the planet.

Over the past 50 years, the changes in both our agricultural system and dietary patterns have been running along in tandem, picking up speed. The changes in our food system have made a direct contribution toward the development of the foods that are part of the Western diet — which has made a direct impact on our communities, as well as the environment. 

Dramatic Changes Lead to the Western Diet

Our diets have changed dramatically over the past half century or so, since we became famous for our style of eating called the Western diet—a term coined to describe our industrialized diet, with a high intake of refined carbohydrates, added sugars, fats, and animal-source foods. The increase of modern supermarkets has led to an ever-widening range of pre-packaged, highly processed foods while lacking the supply of nutritious, whole foods. 

This graphic shows the enormous impact fast food restaurants have on Americans. (Routley, 2019)

Did you know that the average American spends $1,200 per year on fast food meals? This has initiated a critical change to the Western Diet—the explosion of fast food restaurants. Not only has the consumption of unhealthy fats in America increased, but the amount of added sugar incorporated into our diet has skyrocketed—approximately 75% of foods and beverages in the U.S. contain added sugars, and the average person consumes 13% of total daily calories from sugar—which has led to the increase of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

The annual per capita amount of sugar for consumption over the last century is depicted in this graph (Gritz, 2017).

In comparison to other countries, the U.S. is the top meat consumer—consuming over 100 kg per person each year. Animal agriculture became more efficient due to the cultivation of seeds and grains to feed animals, the confinement of animals in feedlots, and the expansion of processing and distributing animal products. Although the combination of these methods made the price of meats more affordable, the healthful qualities of meat—especially the saturated fat profile of meat—has declined. 

University of Oxford. (2019). Beef Production

The food industry has had increasing influence over our food choices, directing us toward the typical Western eating pattern we know today—which consists of an industry filled with processed foods. Food companies are processing raw food ingredients into food products while falsely marketing that these craveworthy foods—packed with fat, sugar, and salt—are considered “healthy” and made from “natural” ingredients. For instance, potatoes were turned into potato chips; soybeans into soybean oil, and corn into high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, and ultimately hamburgers by corn-fed cattle. 

Now you see how we got on this trajectory that led us to the Western diet. What’s more is that as developing nations rise out of poverty, they are eating like us, and chronic disease rates are climbing. 

These images show the location of food deserts, as well as health risks (USDA, 2012).

High Risk Diet Impact

We’ve known for some time that higher quality diets are associated with greater income, while energy-dense, nutrient-poor diets are more often consumed by persons of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and of reduced income. Foods like whole grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables are more often consumed by groups of higher SES, while foods like refined grains and added fats are consumed more often by groups of lower SES. The primary issue is that in lower income neighborhoods there is an increasing availability of cheap sources of low-nutrient foods that simply fill the belly, with lower access to more economical, healthful food sources, and less time available for shopping and home preparation. It’s not a coincidence that people of lower SES suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

This graph shows the relative differences in GHGe of sustainable dietary patterns compare to the current average diet (Aleksandrowicz et al., 2016).

The Western Diet’s Heavy Environmental Footprint

The Western diet pattern harms more than just humans—in fact, research shows that this eating pattern has a trio of negative impacts: human health, environment, and agriculture. The Western dietary pattern relies on a lower variety of foods being consumed, and agricultural production methods that negatively impact ecosystems, increase the use of fossil fuels, and increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe)—as foods become more processed, they generate more GHGe. It’s a growing concern today that the characteristics of global warming can negatively impact human metabolism that may contribute to insulin resistance and diabetes. The Western diet has a greater impact on the environment in comparison to other diet patterns that focus mainly on a plant-based, whole foods diet. Conversion from Western eating patterns to other sustainable diets—such as vegan, vegetarian, and pescaterian—could potentially reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with a Western diet. One thing’s for sure: When it comes to an eating pattern that helps humans, as well as the planet, there is room for great improvement upon the current Western diet pattern.  


For more information on healthful eating patterns, read more: 

Top 11 Tips for Sustainable Eating
What is a Sustainable Eating Style?
Top 5 Tips for Greening Your Plate


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