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What’s Wrong with the Standard American Diet?

When I educate on nutrition, I always start with a little history lesson. That’s because the foods we eat have changed drastically over time, and these changes have made a significant impact on our health and wellbeing. What we consume now in the Standard American Diet (SAD) is worlds away from the foods that sustained our ancestors. And it’s taking a toll on us.

From Nutrient-Dense to Ultra-Processed

Let’s start with one of the most prominent culprits: unrefined sugar. Processed sugar was a luxury when it was first introduced in the 1600s. But as production became easier, processed sugar became more affordable. And now it is in virtually all processed foods. A few hundred years ago, the average sugar consumption was just a few pounds per person each year. Now? The average person consumes around 150-200 pounds of sugar each year.

Speaking of processed foods, a recent study found that more than half of Americans’ calories now come from “ultra-processed” foods. These foods—which include items like soft drinks, frozen pizzas and breakfast cereals—are generally higher in salt, fat and sugar. They also contain additives like flavors, colors and hydrogenated oils.

The added sugars and flavors in these foods are not only unhealthy for us to consume, but they also have another effect: they make us want to eat MORE. These hyper-palatable combinations of fat, sugar and salt actually activate pleasure points in our brain. And that makes us want to eat more and more of these foods.

Thus, most Americans are consuming about 500 more calories per day than we did 40 years ago. And the calories we are consuming are mainly from highly processed foods that are low in essential nutrients.

The SAD Consequences

So, what is the Standard American Diet doing to us?

  1. We aren’t getting enough nutrients. We’re eating more overall calories, but those calories giving our bodies what they need to function optimally.

  2. We’re suffering from inflammation. Highly processed foods can alter our gut bacteria and lead to inflammation in the body. Inflammation can damage our cells, tissues and organs, and lead to long-term problems like heart disease and arthritis.

  3. High consumption of sugar is making us sick. A high-sugar diet can contribute to a variety of health problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

  4. A SAD diet can lead to a sad mood. Your brain needs nutrients like magnesium, fiber and Vitamin C to stabilize your mood. If you’re not eating whole foods that contain these nutrients and are instead eating mostly processed foods, you’re likely setting the stage for mood swings and eventually even mood disorders.

What can you do?

The Standard American Diet is what many of us are used to eating. But that doesn’t mean we HAVE to eat this way.

Here are a few ways you can start shifting toward more nutritional foods:

  1. Ditch the processed foods. Do your best to stay away from foods that are highly processed. These are generally foods with a long shelf life, like cereals, chips and packaged sweets.

  2. Eat your fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in the nutrients your body needs.

  3. Choose whole foods whenever you can. As much as you can, opt for made-from-scratch meals with fresh, whole ingredients.

  4. Supplement your nutrition. Try as we might, it’s extremely difficult in 21st century America to get all of your nutrients from food. Supplements like omega-3 fish oil and Vitamin D can help you give your body the support it needs to be healthy.

Join Us for Healthy Food for a Happy Mood

Want to learn more about how to eat for your physical and emotional health? Sign up for my new webinar, Healthy Food for a Happy Mood.


The content found on Integrative Counseling and Nutrition Consulting platform is not intended to be a substitute for professional therapeutic advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your psychiatrist, therapist or other qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition.


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