Inflammation: Western diet shifts immune cell balance
Our Palaeolithic ancestors would have never experienced anything like a cheeseburger, which has existed for only about 0.1% of human evolutionary history. But they would have loved the processed American cheese, the added bacon, the side of deep-fried potatoes and the 30-ounce soda. Such an energy-dense meal is now readily accessible in high-income countries for the first time in our evolution. Besides this caloric overabundance, numerous nutritional characteristics separate this so-called ‘Western’ diet from what our forebears used to eat. Refined sugars, cereals and vegetable oils, meat from domesticated animals, added sodium, and, in some groups, dairy foods, are now widespread components that would have been largely alien before the advent of farming, animal husbandry and industrialization (Cordain et al., 2005). In the United States, highly manipulated, ‘ultra-processed’ foods which often contain additives like sugar, salt, and fats could now account for two-thirds of the calories that young people consume (Wang et al., 2021).
The modern rise of conditions like obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease has led many to posit that an ‘evolutionary mismatch’ is to blame: our physiology evolved in an environment that primarily offered a plant-based diet, and is therefore ill-suited to the modern nutritional landscape (Eaton et al., 1988). Human evolution did not stop with the transition to agriculture, of course, but ten millennia are not enough to fully adapt to such a wholesale dietary transformation. Supporting this conjecture, many chronic diseases are rarer among those who follow the Mediterranean diet, which is thought to be closer to the foods consumed by our ancestral hunter-gatherers due to its abundance of plant-based proteins and relative absence of meat and refined carbohydrates (Mackenbach, 2007). Yet exactly why the Western and Mediterranean diets are associated with such differing rates of disease is unknown.
Now, in eLife, Thomas Register, Noah Snyder-Mackler and colleagues from various institutions across the United States – including Corbin Johnson as first author – report testing a mechanism that may explain the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet over its Western counterpart (Johnson et al., 2021). Their research focused on monocytes, a group of white blood cells which, depending on their exact type, perform distinct immune functions. Based on the genes they express, these cells can either propagate inflammation or halt the process to repair and regenerate tissue (Orekhov et al., 2019).
A prior study, which did not directly investigate diet, found that the monocytes of people with obesity were more likely to be pro-inflammatory (Devêvre et al., 2015). Building on these results, Johnson et al. investigated how diet could influence monocyte activity by feeding macaques a Western- or Mediterranean-like diet.
The change in diet caused a staggering 40% of monocyte genes to be expressed in a different way, with the Western-like diet increasing the activity of genes that regulate pro-inflammatory processes (Figure 1). This result corroborates the findings of a similar study of more limited scope, in which the pro-inflammatory response of monocytes and related cells was dampened in elderly human volunteers who consumed a Mediterranean diet, compared to those on more Western-like foods (Camargo et al., 2012).
Macaques are not a perfect analogue to people, but the approach by Johnson et al. bypasses limitations of human studies, which may be limited in time and hampered by participants’ poor recollection of what they had for lunch. Overall, this work bolsters the hypothesis that alterations in monocyte activity explain how the Western diet is associated with inflammation. In turn, these results shed new light on conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are also associated with inflammation and cause an immense proportion of modern deaths (Furman et al., 2019).
Several outstanding questions remain: for example, what are the the specific components of the Mediterranean and Western diets that impact monocyte balance and associated diseases? A more nuanced classification of monocyte subtypes could provide additional insight, as would having a clearer idea of the roles human genetic and epigenetic variation play in determining diet response. In addition, genes – in particular those involved in immunity – are connected through delicate networks: could increased inflammation perturb these complex connections, and through this contribute to the evolutionary mismatch between our genomes and our diet? As the Western diet and ultra-processed foods strengthen their hold and now spread across the globe, studies that answer such questions and help to understand the health implications of modern diets are urgently needed.
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Profiling of the three circulating monocyte subpopulations in human obesityThe Journal of Immunology 194:3917–3923.https://doi.org/10.4049/jimmunol.1402655
Stone agers in the fast lane: Chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspectiveThe American Journal of Medicine 84:739–749.https://doi.org/10.1016/0002-9343(88)90113-1
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- Version of Record published: September 13, 2021 (version 1)
© 2021, Bergey
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Junk food causes continuous inflammation and bad behaviour in monkeys
- Epidemiology and Global Health
Background: Home-based self-sampling for human papillomavirus (HPV) testing may be an alternative for women not attending clinic-based cervical cancer screening.
Methods: We assessed barriers to care and motivators to use at-home HPV self-sampling kits during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a randomized controlled trial evaluating kit effectiveness. Participants were women aged 30-65 and under-screened for cervical cancer in a safety-net healthcare system. We conducted telephone surveys in English/Spanish among a subgroup of trial participants, assessed differences between groups, and determined statistical significance at p<0.05.
Results: Over half of 233 survey participants reported that clinic-based screening (Pap) is uncomfortable (67.8%), embarrassing (52.4%), and discomfort seeing male providers (63.1%). The last two factors were significantly more prevalent among Spanish versus English speakers (66.4% vs. 30% (p=0.000) and 69.9 vs. 52.2% (p=0.006), respectively). Most women who completed the kit found Pap more embarrassing (69.3%), stressful (55.6%), and less convenient (55.6%) than the kit. The first factor was more prevalent among Spanish versus English speakers (79.6% vs. 53.38%, p=0.001) and among patients with elementary education or below.
Conclusions: The COVID-19 pandemic influenced most (59.5%) to participate in the trial due to fear of COVID, difficulty making appointments, and ease of using kits. HPV self-sampling kits may reduce barriers among under-screened women in a safety-net system.
Funding: This study is supported by a grant from the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD, R01MD013715, PI: JR Montealegre).
Clinical trial number: NCT03898167.