What is the Standard American Diet?

The Standard American Diet (SAD) is a modern dietary pattern afflicting American adults and children across the United States with long-term, damaging health consequences. By definition, the Standard American Diet consists of ultra-processed foods, added sugar, fat, and sodium. Consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean protein is greatly lacking in this diet. (18)(10)

With fast food restaurants on seemingly every corner and processed foods lining the grocery store aisles, making healthy food choices can seem like an impossible feat. These poor dietary choices can lead to many chronic illnesses and are putting a serious strain on our healthcare system. An inundation of misinformation in popular media coupled with a substantial lack of knowledge held by the general public further adds to the issue. Thankfully, simple dietary habit changes can improve one’s health and reduce the risk of developing several chronic illnesses. (3)

Fat and sodium-laden fast-food is a common element of the Standard American Diet.

What does the Standard American Diet consist of?

The list below outlines the types of foods most commonly consumed as part of the Standard American Diet.

  • Fried foods
  • Grain-based desserts
  • High-fat dairy
  • Processed foods
  • Processed meats (e.g., bacon and deli meats)
  • Red meat
  • Refined grains (e.g., white pasta, white flour, etc.)
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages (18)(10)

The Standard American diet macronutrients consist of 50% carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 35% fat. While these macronutrient percentages fall within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines, the types and quality of foods in the SAD plays a much bigger role. (5)

The USDA’s MyPlate replaced the food pyramid in 2011 to further simplify American dietary guidelines. According to MyPlate, half of your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables, a quarter should come from lean proteins, and a quarter from grains, with a serving of low-fat dairy on the side. (16) The typical Standard American Diet plate is often skewed toward protein and refined grains, while it lacks fruits and vegetables. (19)

Half of your plate should ideally consist of fruits and vegetables. Fresh and frozen produce are your best options.

Did you know?
Added sugars account for 13% of the average American’s total caloric intake each day. Soft drinks and grain-based desserts make up the greatest proportion. (9)

Health implications of the Standard American Diet

In today’s fast-paced world, many of us prioritize convenience over our health. As a consequence, nearly half of American adults suffer from one or more chronic illnesses that are related to poor dietary choices. (17) Today, nearly 40% of U.S. adults are considered obese, which contributes to an upward trend of chronic illness. (2)

Other health implications include:

  • Certain types of cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Higher fasting blood glucose
  • Hypertension
  • Increased LDL cholesterol
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes (12)

Americans, as a whole, consume an excess number of calories, saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium. Many Americans also suffer from dietary shortfalls due to the underconsumption of certain food groups, particularly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.

Calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and potassium are some of the most lacking components of American diets. Each of these key nutrients have a vital role to play in maintaining our body functions. Calcium is necessary for bone health and proper nerve and muscle function. Vitamin D contributes to bone health too but also can improve your immune function and lower your risk for certain cancers and type 2 diabetes. Potassium is essential for regulating blood pressure and diets low in potassium are associated with hypertension. Fiber is protective against many health complications caused by the Standard American Diet, such as cardiovascular disease and obesity. (18)

Did you know?
Only 12.2% of Americans eat the recommended amount of fruit and 9.3% eat the recommended servings of vegetables per day. (6)

Simple ways to avoid the Standard American Diet

Use the following tips to help you avoid falling victim to the Standard American Diet.

Limit your intake of ultra-processed foods

Not all processed foods are inherently bad. Most foods are processed to some degree (e.g., washed and packaged lettuce), but be mindful of how much ultra-processed food you’re eating. Ultra-processed foods are loaded with sodium, sugar, inflammatory fats, preservatives, and artificial flavors. Consuming these types of foods can contribute to many health complications, including obesity and cardiovascular disease. (7) If it comes in a box or a bag, check the ingredient list first to determine if the product contains heavily processed, unhealthy ingredients. Are there ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce? That might be a good sign to search for a better alternative.

Focus on fruits and vegetables

Diets high in fruits and vegetables are associated with decreased incidences of cardiovascular disease and obesity. (15) Adult women should aim for at least 1½ cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables each day while adult men need 2 cups of fruit and 3½ cups of vegetables. (1) Fruits and vegetables are known for their high concentrations of vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and antioxidants. Since antioxidant levels can vary depending on the color of the fruit or vegetable, try to eat a variety of colors for the greatest health benefit. (15)

Eat more plant-based proteins

Lentils, beans, and peas are not only sources of plant-based protein, but they also provide fiber, iron, B vitamins, and magnesium. Consumption of beans and lentils is associated with better weight management and a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and hypertension. (11)

Make half your grains whole

At least half of the grains you eat should come from whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat flour, or barley. When you refine a grain, many of the nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, protein, and fiber are stripped away. Whole grains have these nutrients still intact, making them not only more nutrient-dense but more filling too. (8)

Watch out for added sugar

It’s no secret that sugar can be found in soft drinks and desserts, but it’s also hidden in some places you might not expect, such as marinara sauce, peanut butter, ketchup, salad dressing, and crackers. Current recommendations suggest an upper limit of five teaspoons of sugar per day for the average adult woman and nine teaspoons for adult men. (4) Research indicates that diets with more than 25% of calories from sugar are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease compared to diets with less than 10% of calories from sugar. (14)

Cook more meals at home

Eating out at restaurants is not always the best choice for your wallet or your overall health. Aim to prepare more meals at home. One study showed that people who consumed dinner prepared at home at least six times per week consumed less sugar, fat, and calories than individuals who ate at home once per week. (20) If you’re not a confident home cook, no problem! Partner up with a friend or family member who can cook with you, try an at-home boxed meal prep service, or watch a cooking show for inspiration.

Make healthy foods convenient

Store washed fruits and vegetables in clear, easily visible containers in your fridge. You’re more likely to grab healthy foods if they’re in view and easily accessible. Keep nutrient-dense snacks, such as nuts, seeds, hard-boiled eggs, or cheese, within reach too.

One study put this behavioral theory to the test by placing apples and carrots in clear containers and covered opaque containers close to participants. Interestingly, the participants were more likely to grab the apples from the clear containers as opposed to the opaque containers. This tactic was not as successful for the carrots, however, the study did find that participants were more likely to eat both apples and carrots if they were placed conveniently within arm’s reach as opposed to two meters away. (13)

Keep healthy foods in clear view on your kitchen counter or in your fridge. You’ll be more likely to grab healthy foods if they’re easily accessible.

The bottom line

You don’t need to fall victim to the Standard American Diet and eating healthy doesn’t need to be complicated. Focus on eating whole, fresh foods that have been minimally processed and have short ingredient lists. Be adventurous, experiment with new foods and flavors, and don’t forget to have fun with it!

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, November 24). Only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/division-information/media-tools/adults-fruits-vegetables.html
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 29). Obesity is a common, serious, and costly disease. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
  3. Jamison, D. T. (2006). Prevention of Chronic Disease by Means of Diet and Lifestyle Changes. In J. G. Breman & A. R. Measham (Eds.), Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (2nd ed., p. 1). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11795/
  4. Johnson, R. K., Appel, L. J., Brands, M., Howard, B. V., Lefevre, M., Lustig, R. H., … Wylie-Rosett, J. (2009). Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health. Circulation, 120(11), 1011–1020.
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  8. McRae, M. P. (2017). Health benefits of dietary whole grains: An umbrella review of meta-analyses. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, 16(1), 10–18.
  9. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2015a). A closer look at current intakes and recommended shifts – 2015-2020 dietary guidelines. Retrieved from https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/chapter-2/a-closer-look-at-current-intakes-and-recommended-shifts/#figure-2-3-desc-toggle
  10. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2015b). Current eating patterns in the United States – 2015-2020 dietary guidelines. Retrieved from https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/chapter-2/current-eating-patterns-in-the-united-states/#figure-2-1
  11. Polak, R., Phillips, E. M., & Campbell, A. (2015). Legumes: Health benefits and culinary approaches to increase intake. Clinical Diabetes, 33(4), 198–205.
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  16. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). What is MyPlate? Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/WhatIsMyPlate
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