Skip to main content
take the reality check diet analysis take the reality check diet analysis

Nutrition

Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

Standard American Diet: Should It REALLY Be the Standard?

Also known as the Western diet, should the “Standard American Diet” actually be an American standard?

Standard American Diet: Should It REALLY Be the Standard?


Did you know a slew of chronic diseases impacts nearly half of all Americans? Ironically, the dietary patterns leading to these disease states is referred to as "SAD" - or the standard American diet. 

The current standard American diet is largely nutrient-void and energy-dense, posing many health and longevity problems. Buckle up for the following standard American diet facts intended to empower you to a more nourishing way of eating.

What Is the Standard American Diet (SAD)?

The standard American diet mostly consists of ultra processed foods with high amounts of refined and added sugar, inflammatory fats, and sodium. It tends to be void of healthful fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, legumes, and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids (fats).

The most common SAD foods include:

• Processed and packaged foods
• Refined grains (white bread and pasta, cookies, pastries, crackers, chips)
• Fried foods rich in saturated and trans fats
• Processed meats (bacon, sausage, salami)
• Inflammatory red meat (conventionally raised, NOT grass-fed)
• Poultry with added hormones and antibiotics
• Sugar-sweetened beverages
• High-fat dairy
• Fast food
• Refined and hydrogenated vegetable oils

Standard American Diet Facts

The typical SAD macronutrient spread is about 50% carbohydrate, 35% fat, and 15% protein. For reference, the USDA recommends macro spreads closer to 35-45% carbohydrate, 20-30% fat, and 20-30% protein.

Still, many people would benefit from a macronutrient combination of 30% or more lean protein, 30-40% fat, and 20-30% carbohydrate. The balance of nutrients can help combat insulin resistance, one of the biggest contributors to chronic disease.

In addition, it is wise to limit added sugar intake to no more than 100 to 150 calories or about 24 to 36 grams per day. Yet, added sugar consumption currently accounts for 13% or more of the average American’s caloric intake each day. The majority of added sugar comes from soft drinks and white flour desserts.

Furthermore, over 25% of the population is estimated to consume fast food for at least one meal a day. That means a quarter of the entire population is consuming empty calories with little to no nutritional value.

Perhaps worst of all is that these poor eating habits have permeated into many other cultures around the world. Although the convenience of the SAD is appealing, the health implications are frightening and frankly dangerous to health.

It must be noted that for those who live in food deserts – regions where people have limited access to healthful and affordable food, usually related to insufficient income or living too far away from grocery stores that offer nutritious, healthy food – the standard American diet is sometimes their only option. In this case, the benefit of the SAD is that these folks are figuring out ways to remain nourished rather than going without food. 

Health Implications of the SAD

Nearly half of American adults suffer from one or more chronic illnesses related to poor dietary consumption. This is disheartening since living with even one chronic illness significantly decreases the quality of life.

The implications of health care costs most often permeate web articles. However, the discussion needs to center around how poor dietary choices greatly decrease quality of life. Perhaps many Americans simply do not know that they can feel immensely better by making different food choices.

Nonetheless, beyond obesity, which directly contributes to the upward trend of all chronic diseases, other associated health consequences include:

• Cardiovascular disease and acute problems like heart attack
• Elevated fasting blood sugar and insulin resistance
• Hypertension and associated issues like stroke
• Increased LDL and low HDL cholesterol
• Metabolic syndrome
• Type 2 diabetes and associated consequences like neuropathy
• Certain types of cancer

Moreover, even though most Americans eat an excess of calories, many are deficient in certain micronutrients. This may seem like a paradox, but it highlights the pitfalls of overconsuming empty calories and under-consuming nutrient-dense foods.

The most typical micronutrient shortfalls include:

• Calcium
• Fiber
• Folate
• Magnesium
Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA)
• Potassium
• Vitamin D

Lesser, but still common nutrient deficiencies are:

• Antioxidants (glutathione, Vitamin C and E)
• Iodine
• Iron
• Manganese

Sufficient micronutrient status is necessary for optimal energy and foundational functioning (think breathing, staying awake, focus and concentration, motivation for movement). It also plays a vital role in disease prevention. 

For example, studies show that deficiencies in potassium, calcium, and/or magnesium are associated with elevated blood pressure. And because Vitamin D greatly bolsters immune health, deficiencies of this nutrient are correlated with nearly every chronic and acute illness.

The Bottom Line

The standard American diet is a rather poor-quality diet that's high in processed and packaged foods. It also tends to be low in nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. 

The SAD is linked to elevated blood sugar, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and many other health ailments. In addition, although the typical SAD is energy-dense, it is nutritionally void, making micronutrient deficiencies more common.

Apply some of the following techniques to smoothly transition from a SAD to a healthful one:

1. Create boundaries around processed/packaged foods (i.e. 1 per day)
2. Make vegetables the star of the meal and animal protein and fat sources as sides
3. If eating grains, choose whole grains 90-95% of the time
4. Limit eating takeout/fast food/restaurant meals to 1-3 times per week
5. Pick one to two days a week to meal prep nutritious meals
6. Post simple reminder notes to eat veggies or fruit as snacks
7. Purchase fewer processed foods or keep them out of the house
8. Aim to eat dark leafy greens once every day
9. Start the day with lean protein to promote balanced blood sugar
10. Minimize snacking in between meals and instead add more lean protein or healthy fats to meals

To add, remember to add more daily movement, obtain adequate sleep, and manage stress for a happier, healthier you. 

References:

Dan L. The Standard American Diet: What You Need to Know and How to Break the Status Quo. Fullscript. Published October 18, 2021. https://fullscript.com/blog/standard-american-diet

Kresser C. Well Fed but Undernourished: An American Epidemic. Kresser Institute. Published on April 28, 2018. https://kresserinstitute.com/well-fed-but-undernourished-an-american-epidemic/.

Marengo K. Food Deserts: Definition, Effects, and Solutions. Medical News Today. Reviewed June 22, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-are-food-deserts.

Raghupathi W, Raghupathi V. An Empirical Study of Chronic Diseases in the United States: A Visual Analytics Approach to Public Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2018; 15(3):431. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15030431

Sydney Lappe's Photo
Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on June 18, 2022. Updated on June 22, 2022.

JOIN THE #BISTROMD COMMUNITY

Follow @bistroMD



Theme picker

as seen on...
Dr Phil
NBC
Lifetime Network
The Biggest Loser
The Doctors