Look around as you drive or walk, well, just about anywhere. What you see is a vast number of quick foods, whether neatly packaged up in a convenience store or available at a drive-thru for 99 cents. It can be tempting.

Now, look around a little more. What else do you see? Obesity. Dull, sickly-looking skin. Dark under-eye circles. People moving as if they’re decades older than they actually are because they’re worn down, they have no energy anymore.

One’s contributing to the other. What happened to the American diet and where did we go wrong?

What’s the Standard American Diet and What Is It Doing to the Western World?

You probably have a pretty good idea of what the Standard American Diet consists of (let’s just say it’s no coincidence it’s often just shortened to SAD), but I tend to narrow in on just a handful of components when I think of it sometimes, so let’s take a look at all it entails:

  • High meat intake (especially red meat)
  • Dairy, especially high-fat kinds
  • Treats made from refined sugars
  • Processed foods (including, but not limited to, more meat)
  • Sugary drinks
  • Fried foods
  • Lots of vegetable oil
  • Refined grains

A whole lot of “nothing” calories you can get at any drive-thru, right? All the super-easy stuff you can grab on a road trip or when you only have a few minutes to toss some lunch down your throat and get back to work. Also? The cheap stuff.

Those nutritionally void foods come with a smorgasbord of problems, so they’re not really saving you any time or money. They’re just delaying the inevitable: less time (taking sick days…or worse) and less money (from all the medical bills and prescriptions).

The Consequences of the SAD Diet

I won’t bore you with a lot of heavy statistical information. You know how prevalent obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and other illnesses are in our society.

I do want to share just a handful of numbers from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, though. I was absolutely shocked.

  • 65% of people in the United States over 20 years old are overweight or obese.
  • Over 65 million Americans have at least one type of cardiovascular disease.
  • 50 million are hypertensive.
  • 11 million suffer from type 2 diabetes.

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So much of this could have been prevented with a whole foods based diet. So much. Let’s break down some of the components of the SAD and see how they came to be.

More, More, More! The Increased Use of Refined Sugar and Oils

You’d be hard-pressed to find a food that’s part of the Standard American Diet that didn’t have extreme amounts of sugar, oil, or both tucked away inside.

Are You Eating Your Body Weight in Sugar Every Year?

Refined sugar consumption has been climbing ever since the Industrial Revolution. Since that’s plenty of time (about 200 years), it’s obviously had time to become quite a problem. Can you believe that in the year 2000, each American consumed, on average, 155 pounds of refined sugar? That’s just about the weight of an average woman!

Considering that’s about a 35-lb increase in refined sugar consumption since 1970, I wonder how much worse it is now. 165? 180?

I wanted to go see a movie with a couple of friends a few nights ago. I like to go with a full tummy so I’m not too tempted to snack on anything there, but they wanted to hit up the snack bar before we found our seats so I waited with them. Jumbo sodas with high-fructose corn syrup were paired with all kinds of candies and ridiculously gooey, sticky treats were everywhere. Suddenly I could see how easy it could be to eat your body weight in sugar each year.

Oil Is Another Slippery Slope

Maybe your great-grandmother used vegetable oil (it’s been growing in popularity since 1909), so you always assumed it was okay. I’m guilty of that. A grandma knows her way around a kitchen, and who are you to ask questions, right?

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The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that in the 100 years that passed between 1909 and 1999, the use of vegetable oils in the American diet has grown at quite a ridiculous rate (okay, the ridiculous part’s my wording). There’s been an increase of 130% in cooking and salad oils, a 136% increase in shortening, and a whopping 410% in margarine. I feel heavier just typing that. I’m sure I ate my fair share over the years before taking better control of my diet—especially margarine. Ick!

These ingredients sneak into even innocent-seeming snacks, frozen dinners, and just about anything pre-packaged or purchased from a restaurant that doesn’t keep its focus on whole, healthy foods.

Be mindful. Read labels. Or better yet, don’t buy foods that come with labels.

High Demands for Meat Are Met at Any Cost

It’s no secret that Americans love their meat. Red, preferably, but as long as there’s an animal protein on the plate at almost every meal, it’s usually considered a well-rounded success.

How Much Meat Do Americans “Need”?

There are roughly 317,816, 522 people living in America right now. (That number will be different when you visit the population calculator because it’s always changing, but it’s close.) A 2008 study reported that only about five percent of Americans are vegetarian. Half of those are vegan. These numbers may be a little higher now, but let’s just shoot for an estimate here.

Five percent of 317,816,522 is right around 15,890,826. That leaves about 301,925,696 people who want meat—a lot of the time, and probably a lot on their plates when they get it.

How on earth can production ever be met and maintained for that number of people?

Crowding. Antibiotics. Cheap feed. Whatever gets the job done, right?

The Earliest Days

I found an interesting article on NPR that shows exactly how the meat industry turned into what it is today. This part of the American diet started with America itself. The colonists were excited to find that they had so much extra space compared to what they had back in England, and they used it to raise a whole lot of cattle.

Over time, more and more people moved into the cities, but they still wanted their meat. The farmers left behind couldn’t keep up with the meat demands on their own, so everyone got together and decided, “Hey, what if the government helped make sure all of this could run like a well-oiled machine? Farmers will keep their costs down, demand will be met, and everybody will be happy?”

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Well, feeding the cows corn was cheap. It got them fatter, faster too. So that happened. But cows are supposed to eat grass…

The Introduction of Antibiotics to Feed

In 1948, it got really easy to raise more livestock than should have been possible within a certain amount of space. The discovery of aureomycin (an antibiotic) and the addition of it to animals’ food supplies led to “better health” for them when they were all confined together.

And boy, is that crowding thing an issue. Eighty percent of the beef market is controlled by just four companies. Four. So what happens if one cow gets sick? Thousands of cows are theoretically exposed to that illness. And guess what? That risk is passed on to the American people.

Meat is now about half as expensive as it was in 1970…but at what real cost?

Dairy’s Bad, but It Just Gets Worse

If you’ve been visiting this blog for any amount of time, you know Kim’s (and my) stance on dairy is that it’s not even something you should enjoy occasionally.

Why Is Dairy So Bad?

Just in case you’re new here, I’ll go over a few of the reasons we think you should swear off dairy starting today, even if you don’t make any other changes to your diet.

  • Milk from a cow is for that cow’s babies. It’s not natural for a human (baby or adult) to drink it.
  • The protein in milk, called casein, has been linked to autism and certain types of cancer.
  • Our bodies don’t have the enzymes to break casein down effectively.
  • It clogs up the body, creates more mucus, and makes digestion so difficult, it could make it feel next to impossible to ever lose weight.
  • When you consume dairy, you’re probably getting a big ol’ dose of hormones and drugs, too. Antibiotics that were used to keep the cows well (just like in the meat industry) and rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) to keep them producing enough milk to meet the demand.
  • It removes calcium from the bones because it’s so acidic. So much for drinking milk for strong bones.

I get it. It was hard for me to give it up, too. I loved my ice cream growing up, and lattes and hot chocolate made with cow’s milk were comfort drinks of mine for years. But your body will thank you. And though high-fat dairy is the especially prominent type in the SAD, this goes for low-fat choices, too (yes, put down your spoon and go toss the Greek yogurt out).

So dairy products have never been natural for us to drink or eat, but when did it get even worse?

The short answer: a chunk of time extending from the 1940s through the 1970s really shifted our perception of dairy in America.

The Recent History of Dairy and Its Role in the American Diet

You’re probably familiar with the MyPlate recommendations and the food pyramid before that, but the government’s been heavily recommending dairy (and meat) since well before those were created.

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In 1943, the USDA wrote up recommendations called The Basic 7, which included two or more glasses of milk per day for adults and three or four glasses for children. From there, we’ve had The Basic Four, The Food Wheel, The Food Guide Pyramid, MyPyramid, and MyPlate. All have included dairy.

Why?

Not health. Money.

The dairy industry (meat too) has an outrageous amount of influence. If USDA advisory committees attempt to draw up new guidelines that don’t support dairy’s “vital role” in a healthy American diet, agriculture industries encourage them to reconsider. Know what I mean?

Let’s just say that at one point, at least six of the 11 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee members had financial ties to the meat and dairy industries. What?!?! And this kind of thing has been going on since the 50s! Can you see a correlation between the dietary guidelines and the not-so-subtle nudging to drink milk and eat yogurt?

Hormones and Antibiotics in Milk

Pretty dirty, but it gets dirtier (in a different way). The added hormones can really confuse the human body.

rBGH, which is given to the cows to increase milk production and makes its way into that milk, has been linked to breast cancer, colon cancer, and early onset puberty in girls. The FDA approved rBGH in 1993.

To add insult to injury, the poor cows that are injected with rBGH often experience mastitis as a result. I’ve heard some of my mom friends complain about how painful that is. Guess how it’s treated? Antibiotics.

The Introduction of Pesticides and Chemicals on Crops

It seems to me that the 1940s were really the catalyst in the overall scheme of America’s dietary habits. The idea of spraying crops with chemicals in the name of keeping the pests from devouring them first also has its roots in that era.

I’m sure there were other methods of protecting crops before DDT, but this one’s kind of a huge deal. First produced and used for protection against malaria, typhus, and other similar diseases for members of the military and civilians in the 40s, it quickly crossed over into a territory I personally wish it’d never touched—crops.

DDT was later proven to be harmful not only to pests, but to the environment, wildlife, and humans. It was banned in 1972.

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That doesn’t mean the idea of spraying crops with chemicals in order to keep it “safe” (from pests) was put to rest. Others, like methoxychlor (also banned as of 2003) followed.

I don’t know about you, but the track record’s not looking so good for these pesticides.

I can’t happily accept that the newest one (whatever it may be at the time) is as harmless as it claims to be. What do you think?

Processed Foods Ready in Minutes Sounded Great, But…

About the time everyone became such busy, busy bees outside of the home in the 1940s, America lost touch with where its food came from and how it was prepared. Convenience prevailed through the years as life became busier and busier for men and women alike.

Who wouldn’t love being able to go to the store to buy meals that were mere minutes from being ready to eat?

It probably felt almost as good as winning free maid service—indefinitely! I’m sure the average person didn’t think, “Hey, wait, what’s really in this?” It was just a perceived perk to living in such a rapidly changing time.

A Brief Timeline of Processed Foods

You know how sometimes a handful of things all work together to create one colossal mess? You can’t just point your finger at one thing and say, “There. That caused it.” Processed foods have a similar history.

Yes, everyone was busy and spending less time in the house, which made processed foods more appealing, but there was more going on.

In the 1940s…

America had to figure out a way to get food and drinks to the troops. What experts learned in that process was later extended to providing food to the American public in new, more convenient forms (for example, instant coffee).

In the 1950s…

This period brought more widespread television viewing (and advertising possibilities), highways with quick-fix food stops dotted along the sides, microwaves, TV dinners, and more. After the dark days of the 40s, this light, quick, easy way of life was probably welcomed with open arms.

In the 60s…

Things got uglier. High-fructose corn syrup made its way onto the scene as a cheaper alternative to sugar. Advertising really took off, and with it, the public was more exposed to processed food options, like soft drinks, frozen veggies in butter sauce, and processed meats.

You know how advertisements can get to you, if you’re subjected to them enough. How many people succumbed to their curiosity about Coke or canned meat after seeing them on TV so many times?

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The processed food “trend” had caught on and it had no intention of slowing down. Customer demands changed based on dietary recommendations (so there was a push for light, low-fat, sugar-free, or low-calorie versions of new favorites, for example), but there was a steady churning out of new pre-packaged foods with questionable ingredients.

What Can You Do About It?

Get back to the basics. Eat real food. Learn to love and care for yourself and inspire others. Show them that it doesn’t take a lot of money or a tremendous amount of time to eat healthy. Take healthy options to work, picnics—maybe even the movies (I won’t tell!).

What are some of your biggest tips for avoiding the pitfalls of the SAD diet? Have you ever experienced a moment when you realized you were inspiring someone else to make changes in their diet and their life?

 

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New York Times Bestseller and Nutritionist