Standard American Diet (SAD)
“The standard American diet — high in saturated fats and processed foods and low in plant-based foods and complex carbohydrates— is making us fat and killing us slowly.”
Julie had been helping Lua prepare the meal for the bonfire event. I wandered into the galley earlier in the day to see what delightful creation Lua was concocting for us. Julie and Lua were absorbed in a conversation about American diets. As a successful self-made restaurant owner-manager and community organizer, Julie had been a pioneer of organic produce, local sourcing, and ethical treatment of farm animals.
The topic of food and diet had been on my mind lately. I had recently heard from a good friend whose son had suffered from asthma from a very young age. My friend began experimenting with the boy’s diet and discovered that when he stopped eating the normal American diet — sugar, fats, chemicals and additives — he got much better. He could breathe more freely. When the boy occasionally yielded to temptation and indulged in a hamburger or soda, his body would immediately rebel. The source of the problem was clear.
Julie explained to Lua,
“The very fact that Americans are having a national conversation about what to eat, and that we are struggling with the question about what is the best diet, suggests to me that we have simply strayed too far from the natural conditions that gave rise to our species — from eating the natural foods that fueled our bodies and kept them strong and resilient during our long evolutionary history.”
Julie said that the right diet is, after all, really quite simple. Real, whole, fresh food — primarily a plant-based diet — is best. But in America, the relative prices of cheap, fatty, junk food compared to nutrient-rich, high-quality food; limited access to healthy food; increased inactivity; and the cumulative effects of massive food advertising campaigns; all contribute to poor health and a national obesity epidemic. The standard American diet (SAD) — high in saturated fats and processed foods and low in plant-based foods and complex carbohydrates — is making us fat and killing us slowly.
She told us that many food manufacturers, restaurants, and fast food chains carefully combine fats, sugar, and salt in precise ratios to reach a ‘bliss point,’ which triggers brain systems that increase the desire to eat more — even with a full stomach! These biss-point foods tend to be energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that are relatively cheap to produce.
“I agree that a plant-based diet is generally best. It reduces the risks of so many chronic degenerative diseases such as obesity, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Vegetarian diets are far more healthful than the typical American diet, particularly in preventing, treating, or reversing heart disease and reducing the risk of cancer.”
I had heard that cardiovascular disease kills one million Americans annually and is the leading cause of death in the United States. A vegetarian diet is inherently healthful because vegetarians consume less animal fat and cholesterol (vegans consume no animal fat or cholesterol) and instead consume more fiber and more antioxidant-rich produce.
“By switching from the standard American diet to a primarily vegetarian diet, you could add several healthy years to your life. People who consume saturated ‘four-legged fat’ have a shorter lifespan and experience greater disability at the end of their lives. Animal products clog arteries, zap energy, and slow down the immune system. Meat eaters also experience accelerated cognitive and sexual dysfunction at a younger age. And foods rich in protein such as meat, poultry, fish, and seafood are frequently involved in food-borne illness outbreaks.”
I had seen a documentary a few years ago that showed that residents of Okinawa have the longest life expectancy of any Japanese and likely the longest life expectancy of any people in the world. That fact came from a 30-year study of more than 600 Okinawan centenarians. Their secret: a low-calorie diet of unrefined complex carbohydrates, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, and soy.
“Most health care practitioners recommend that we increase our intake of nutrients such as calcium the way nature intended—through foods. Foods also supply other nutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamin D that are necessary for the body to absorb and use calcium. If you avoid dairy altogether, as some of my restaurant customers do, you can still get a healthful dose of calcium from dry beans, tofu, soy milk, and dark green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, collards, and turnip greens.”
Julie explained that good nutrition also gives us more usable energy. Too much fat in the bloodstream means that arteries won’t open properly and that muscles won’t get enough oxygen. The result? You feel zapped. Balanced plant-based diets are naturally free of cholesterol-laden, artery-clogging animal products that physically slow us down and keep us hitting the snooze button morning after morning. And because whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are so high in complex carbohydrates, they supply the body with plenty of energizing fuel.
But our bodies are not the only living systems struggling with chronic nutritional deficiencies. So are our farmlands.