Contrasting effects of western vs. Mediterranean diets on monocyte inflammatory gene expression and social behavior in a primate model

Corbin S.C. Johnson, Carol A. Shively, Kristofer T. Michalson, Amanda J. Lea, Ryne J. Debo, Timothy D. Howard, Gregory A. Hawkins, Susan E. Appt, Yongmei Liu, Charles E. McCall, David M. Herrington, Edward H. Ip, Thomas C. Register, Noah Snyder-Mackler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Dietary changes associated with industrialization substantially increase the prevalence of chronic diseases, such as obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, major contributors to the public health burden. The high prevalence of these chronic diseases is often attributed to an “evolutionary mismatch” between human physiology and modern nutritional environments. Western diets enriched with foods that were scarce throughout human evolutionary history (e.g., simple sugars and saturated fats) promote inflammation and disease relative to diets more akin to ancestral human hunter-gatherer diets, such as a Mediterranean diet. Peripheral blood monocytes, precursors to macrophages and important mediators of innate immunity and inflammation, are sensitive to the environment and may represent a critical intermediate in the pathway linking diet to disease. We evaluated the effects of 15 months of whole diet manipulations mimicking human Western or Mediterranean diet patterns on monocyte polarization using a well-established model of human health, the cynomolgus macaque (Macaca fascicularis). Monocyte transcriptional profiles differed markedly between the two diets, with 40% of transcripts showing differential expression (FDR < 0.05). Monocytes from Western diet consumers were polarized toward a more proinflammatory phenotype. Compared to the Mediterranean diet, the Western diet shifted the co-expression of 445 gene pairs, including small RNAs and transcription factors associated with metabolism and adiposity in humans, and dramatically altered behavior. For example, Western-fed individuals were more anxious and less socially integrated compared to the Mediterranean-fed subjects. These behavioral changes were also associated with some of the effects of diet on gene expression, suggesting an interaction between diet, central nervous system activity, and monocyte gene expression. The results of this study provide new insights into evolutionary mismatch at the molecular level and uncover new pathways through which Western diets alter monocyte polarization toward a proinflammatory phenotype.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere68293
StatePublished - 2021


  • Affiliative behavior
  • Anxiety-associated behavior
  • Differential gene co-expression
  • Immune regulation
  • Inflammatory gene expression
  • Mediterranean diet
  • Monocyte polarization
  • Social isolation
  • Western diet

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)


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