Between fast food joints on every corner and grocery shelves stuffed with processed foods – making healthy food choices in America ain’t easy. Unfortunately, poor diets can be dangerous to your health, and even deadly.
The American diet is quite literally, killing us. Luckily, we have the power to change that. With some simple diet tweaks, you can improve your health and reduce your risk of chronic illness.
So read on to learn what the American diet is, why it’s harmful, and how to break the fast food spell and change your health for the better.
What is the Standard American Diet?
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is the dietary pattern the majority of Americans follow. It’s packed with processed foods, fast foods, added sugars, and sodium.
Wholesome foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are largely forgotten.
To paint a picture, here are some common foods in the SAD diet:
- Packaged foods filled with artificial flavors and colors
- Fried foods
- Red meat
- Processed meats (deli meat, cold cuts, bacon, etc.)
- Sugar-laden baked goods (cakes, cookies, etc.)
- Refined grains (white bread, white pasta, white rice, etc.)
- Sugar-sweetened drinks (soda, sports drinks, fruit drinks, flavored coffee drinks, etc.)
In 2011, with obesity and chronic illness on the rise, the USDA revamped its guidelines. To make healthy eating simpler, they swapped the old food pyramid out for MyPlate.
MyPlate says that half of your plate should consist of fruits and veggies, with a quarter whole grains, and a quarter lean protein. Low-fat dairy is on the side, recommended at two cups per day.
While MyPlate is a step in the right direction, it hasn’t moved the needle much in getting Americans to clean up their diet. And it’s having some disastrous effects on Americans’ health.
The Sad Truth Behind the Standard American Diet
When you’re in a rush, it’s easier to swing by a drive-thru than to prepare a home-cooked meal. Prioritizing convenience over quality has become the norm.
Usually, this means eating foods high in calories, trans and unsaturated fats, and excess sugars. In fact, the average American eats 3,600 calories a day! That’s far above the USDA dietary guidelines – and it shows on the scale.
And poor diet is now one of the leading causes of death in America – even more so than smoking! Clearly, something’s not working.
So, let’s break down why the standard American diet is so SAD.
5 Major Problems with the American Diet
Excess calories aren’t the only issue with how Americans are eating. Here are five other flaws in the SAD diet.
Sugar hides everywhere in the SAD diet. It’s even in foods touted as ‘healthy’ such as salad dressings, granola, and yogurt.
This is scary news considering research shows sugar is just as addictive as street drugs like cocaine. This may explain why the average American consumes 77 grams of sugar a day – or around 19 teaspoons. Over a year, that adds up to a whopping 60 pounds of sugar!
While sugar provides a quick energy source, it offers no nutrition. Eating high-sugar diets throws off your blood sugar and increases your risk of diabetes. Sugar also disrupts your gut microbiome, allowing the bad guys to outnumber the good ones.
Roughly 60% of the American diet is made up of processed foods. This includes soda, fast food, packaged foods, frozen meals, sweets, cereals, and canned soup.
These foods offer very little nutrition. But they’re also packed with sodium and added sugars, along with artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.
And the more of them you eat, the more it shows on your waistline. Research shows people who buy more processed foods are more likely to be overweight or obese.
Not enough fruits and veggies
Fruits and veggies are nutritional powerhouses. They’re rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds. But Americans don’t eat nearly enough of them.
The USDA recommends that US adults eat between 1.5-2.0 cups of fruits and 2-3 cups of vegetables every day. But only 12.4% of Americans meet the suggested fruit intake. And a measly 10% meet the recommended veggie intake.
Lack of fiber
Dietary fiber feeds your healthy gut bacteria, keeps your blood sugar in check, and keeps your bowels moving. Yet around 95% of Americans don’t get enough fiber.
This is partly due to not eating enough fiber-rich foods such as fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. But the SAD diet is also packed with refined grain products, such as white rice and foods made with white flour.
These foods are made by removing the bran and germ from grains. While this helps extend shelf life, it strips away fiber, vitamins, and minerals in the process.
The wrong fats
Fast food and processed foods are loaded with trans fats which are harmful to your health. Trans fats increase bad LDL cholesterol and lower your good HDL cholesterol. But they also increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
But not all fat is bad. Our bodies, and especially our brains need fat – just the right kind in the right amounts.
For example, omega-3 fatty acids are shown to lower inflammation, improve heart health, and keep your brain sharp. Omega-3s are found in foods such as salmon, sardines, and walnuts. But you won’t find them in the SAD diet.
5 Simple Ways to Ditch the Standard American Diet
Wondering how to break free of the SAD diet to improve your health? Here are five ways to upgrade your diet to lower your risk of chronic disease.
1 – Avoid processed foods
As a rule, eat more foods that come from nature, and less that come in a box. While packaged foods are convenient, they’re loaded with sugar, sodium, and harmful chemicals. So limit them as much as you can.
That said, it’s nearly impossible to avoid processed foods altogether. So become a label detective and choose healthier versions. If the ingredient list is a mile long and reads like a chemistry textbook – put it back.
2 – Treat food as medicine
Each meal is an opportunity to nourish yourself. What you eat impacts your weight, energy, hormones, and even your mood. So, give your body the building blocks it needs by eating nutrient-dense foods. These include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein.
And don’t forget to add some spice! Herbs and spices are rich in phytonutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds. Plus, they add flavor to your meals so you’re more likely to stick to your healthy diet.
3 – Just say no to sugar
Limit sugar as much as possible. Read the labels and steer clear of anything with added sugars – especially the dreaded high fructose corn syrup. If you drink soda, swap it out for sparkling water.
When you do make sweet treats, opt for healthier sweeteners like maple syrup, dates, honey, stevia, or coconut sugar. But don’t go overboard on these either.
4 – Eat out less, eat in more
Eating out can be hard on your waistline and your wallet. So, aim to cook as many meals at home as possible. When you eat out, you don’t know what you’re getting. This can lead to eating more sodium, fat, and calories than you intended.
But when you prepare meals at home, you’re in total control of what goes on your plate. If you’re new to cooking, no worries! You can try a boxed meal prep service, explore cooking videos on YouTube, or ask a friend or family member for cooking lessons.
5 – Focus on quality, not just quantity
Instead of obsessing over calories, focus on upgrading the quality of your foods. Choose organic fruits and veggies, wild fish, grass-fed meat, and pasture-raised eggs. These foods are higher in nutrients and have lower levels of pesticides.
If eating all organic isn’t in your budget, do what you can. Follow the EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’ lists. These tell you which foods are okay to buy conventional and which are best to buy organic.
Need Help Upgrading Your Diet? Functional Medicine Can Help
Changing your diet is powerful. But it can also be overwhelming. If you’re ready to start eating healthier but could use some support, we’re here to help.
At Anchored in Health, our Functional Medicine Doctor will guide you step-by-step on how to shift toward a healthier way of eating. You’ll get personalized recommendations tailored to your unique body and health goals – and tips to make healthy eating fun and easy.
So, if you’re ready to learn how to eat in a way that nourishes your body, follow these steps:
- Contact us with any questions you may have.
- Schedule your first appointment here.
- Learn how to love healthy food and reduce your risk of chronic disease.