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Why Do Americans Eat Like They Have Free Healthcare?

by Carly Neubert, BA, NC on July 13, 2022

The classic “American” diet is known worldwide. It is also known as the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) From Big Macs and Double-Doubles to larger-than-life servings, we have certainly made a name for ourselves when it comes to our eating. The average American body is not as healthy as it should be. This is due to lifestyle, diet, and our food industry as a whole. According to WorldBank, in 2019 Americans had the 49th highest life expectancy in the world at just 79 years old. With other countries nearing 85 years for their average life expectancy, we have to analyze more than just our eating. Life expectancy depends on the overall lifestyle and health of the individual. That brings me to the question I hope to answer in this blog: Why do Americans eat like they have free healthcare?

What is the “Typical American Diet”?

During the pre-pandemic era, my hubs and I would host Fulbright Scholars during their orientation to the United States. These young adults heralded from India, Dubia, and Uraguay and everywhere in between. Without fail, their biggest surprise in America was the food and the serving sizes they had encountered. They couldn’t believe the serving sizes and the amount of fast food they were offered. They were all familiar with fast-food chains in their home nations, but said the shear number and prevalence of processed foods was astonishing. 

The typical American diet consists of excess sugar, trans fats, saturated fats, and refined carbohydrates. You can see this diet in looking at what the average American eats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. According to a study from 2016, 58% of all calories consumed by Americans come from ultra-processed foods. This pattern of consumption is not specific to America, however. There have been studies done to determine the spread of this Western diet worldwide. While it has been spreading in areas with higher income per capita, it is important to note that the government has a stake in determining policies to deter diet patterns such as these. 

Why is this diet “bad”?

This diet is not beneficial to your overall health and wellbeing because of the increased occurrences of illnesses and conditions related to being overweight. Some of the illnesses that you could develop from adhering to a S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) are diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, stroke, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). These diseases all stems from increased inflammation within your body. When you are obese, your body is releasing increased inflammatory mediators in response to the higher amounts of macronutrients (calories) within body tissue. Thus, through obesity, inflammation can create issues within the cardiovascular and digestive systems.  The inflammation also impacts your brain and mental health. 

How does this diet differ from other countries?

If you have had opportunities to travel to Europe, Asia, or Latin America (as well as other foreign nations), you have probably noticed that they have different opinions of how one should eat, when they should eat, and the origins of the contents of their fridge/pantry. With the vast cultures across the West and into the Eastern hemisphere, it is no wonder that our S.A.D. diet creates such a stir when it is analyzed by foreigners. The Mediterranean Diet is a great example of these differences. The Mediterranean Diet typically incorporates whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Also, heart-healthy fats are very important. One of the top benefits of this diet is the heart benefits - studies have shown that this way of eating prevents heart attacks, strokes, and premature death! One aspect of Italian food culture that has me fascinated is pasta culture. Eating exclusively high-carb items can be detrimental incorporated into a diet when eaten on a daily basis. The difference with Italian food culture is that they utilize vegetables in their meals. Not just regular vegetables, however, but cleanly prepared vegetables using olive oil and fresh herbs. 

What are some habits from European cultures that we could take inspiration from?

Some European-style eating habits that we may want to consider including in our eating culture are the ideas of utilizing fresh and clean food. Here in the US, we see an increased occurrence of GMOs in our food. A GMO is essentially a modified organism where a piece of DNA is inserted in order to help the crop survive pesticides or contain a pesticide that can kill pests like insects. While this may be a good thing for farmers, as their crops can withstand pest damage and there are fewer weeds to pull each day, the highly toxic chemicals can be ingested by humans. While the FDA has accepted this, there are still opportunities for us to consume a known probable carcinogen.

 Another tip we can learn from is portion control. Scientists like Paul Rozin have been documenting the portion size differences between the United States and France for a decade. The croissants are smaller, and so are the meals. They may be eating rich pastries and delicacies, but they are, as a whole, not experiencing the massive spike in cardiovascular issues that American are struck with. 

How does our food industry affect our consumption?

One of the issues with the S.A.D. is the food industry as a whole. Sarah Reinhardt, a health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment program, says that only 2% of cropland in the United States is used to grow fruits and vegetables. Nearly 60% is used to farm crops that are used for highly processed foods. This makes access to nutritional foods, like fruits and vegetables, troublesome. Reinhardt goes on to say that if every American were to meet the nutritional guidelines for fruits and vegetables, we would have to double our production of all of those crops.

Another issue that needs to be discussed is the types of food available at our grocery stores. Most of these food items are shelf-stable and highly-processed foods. This food is highly available not because we should be eating it, but because it’s profitable. What are some ways that this is being combated? A soda tax is a great example. This was also seen in Northern European countries like Denmark with a tax on fattier foods. Our food industry is only a fraction of the equation to reach better health as a country. We need to apply healthy eating habits ourselves. 

What is the impact on healthcare?

America’s healthcare industry is a difficult and sensitive topic to broach. The health impacts are the biggest concealed cost of our food industry, according to a Washington Post article. More than $1 trillion is paid by Americans each year in medical costs. $604 billion is applicable to diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and cancers linked to diet. With numerous other societal and environmental costs, healthcare is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we are paying. 

Impact of culture?

Food is part of all cultures - through celebrations we see the ways that food impacts each of our lives intimately. An article posted by the University of Nebraska reflected upon our nation’s changing attitudes towards foods with our busier lifestyles. Today, we see more Americans in sedentary jobs and running from place to place throughout the day. Without any time to prepare food and know what is in their meals, we have placed our trust in food companies that are providing us with pre-packaged processed foods.

Concluding Thoughts

Like other health-based discussions, there should be many ways of analyzing a problem. This topic is no exception. It would be easy to say that we as Americans eat the way we do purely out of laziness and habit. There are many factors that need improving, from our own lifestyle choices to the way our culture and policymakers look at food regulations. 

I became a certified nutritionist and lifestyle diva because I witnessed first-hand the healing and hurting power of food in my own body. I’ve had a lifetime (or 25 years or so) to recognize which foods trigger mood, digestive, and other symptoms in my body.  Every nutrition conference I attend recommends a slightly different variation on a healthy diet. I’ve never read one study, heard one speaker, or read one book extols the virtue of fast, junk, or processed foods.

The S.A.D. diet truly makes you sad. Diets high in processed foods with chemicals, and high glycemic carbohydrates cause blood sugar spikes and drops which cause unstable moods and brain power. Brain disorders such as ADHD, Parkinsons and Alzheimers have now been linked to oxidation caused by high blood sugar.  

Healthcare is not free for your bank account or for you body. All medications come with side effects. Many disease processes can be reversed, but the damage may remain. What is free? Prevention is free. Choosing to honor your body with healthy foods as opposed to junk foods is a free choice.  

I love the signs in my neighborhood that say “Drive like you kids live here…” because it reminds me about my priorities. I wish we could post a sign outside each grocery store that says “Shop like you value your health.” Maybe then we would have less processed foods and more real foods leaving the grocery store with us.