The Problems with the Standard American Diet

What does the standard American diet include? While there are always variances from the average American diet, overall, there are several trends that have been identified as far as what the typical American eats.

The American diet is often referred to as a Western diet and has been linked with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes.

According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2013-2016, nearly 37% of adults consume fast food on any given day. Fast food tends to be high in saturated fat, which is one of the dietary factors associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Popular fast food options for Americans include burgers, French fries, sandwiches, and pizza, as well as other ethnic-inspired foods such as Chinese and Mexican food.

Most Americans consume more sodium than is recommended due to their reliance on fast food as well as processed foods. High sodium intake is another risk factor for promoting hypertension (high blood pressure), which can lead to heart disease. The typical sodium intake for Americans is estimated to be around 3,400 milligrams per day, while the recommendation is less than 2,300 milligrams per day.

The typical American diet is low in dietary fiber. ¾ of Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables.

The standard American diet is often higher in refined carbohydrates such as white bread, bagels, pasta, etc. and not as rich in whole grains. The American diet tends to be heavily reliant on grains and protein, such as white bread and meat.

The standard American diet is also much higher in added sugars than is recommended. The primary source of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, sweetened fruit drinks, etc.

However, added sugar is also in products such as yogurt, cold cereals, granola bars, etc. The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, while the recommendation is to consume fewer than 6-9 teaspoons of added sugar per day, depending on gender.

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How has the standard American diet changed?

According to research, several aspects of the American diet have changed over the years. Compared to 1970, average Americans in 2010 consume:

  • 23% more total calories

  • 42% less milk

  • 29% more grains

Americans also consumed more fats and oils in 2010 compared to 1970, likely due to the increased reliance on fast food and processed food. Processed foods often have sugar and fat added to them to increase palatability.

Americans likely consume much more processed foods now than in 1970 because their availability is so high now. People tend to rely on convenience foods versus preparing meals at home due to factors such as busy schedules and decreasing knowledge of nutrition and lack of cooking skills.

What does the standard American diet lack?

As mentioned earlier, the standard American diet lacks adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy. According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, Americans tend to lack adequate intakes of several vitamins and minerals, such as:

  • Calcium

  • Potassium

  • Fiber

  • Magnesium

  • Vitamins A, C, and E

Problems with the standard American diet

Why is the standard American diet considered unhealthy?

The typical American diet is considered unhealthy because it’s low in plant-based foods and fiber and is much too high in sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat. Nearly half of American adults have a chronic disease related to diet, which proves how unhealthy the typical American diet can be.

Certain health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease (heart disease), and hypertension (high blood pressure) are primarily affected by diet and lifestyle.

Americans tend to rely heavily on processed foods and prepared foods, which are higher in fat, sugar, and total energy (calories) compared to preparing meals with fresh, whole-food ingredients.

Around the 1990s, there was a “fat-free boom” in America. Fat-free foods were highly encouraged for heart health. These fat-free foods are often higher in sugar to make up for the loss of fat, which is highly palatable and has an appealing texture.

High-fructose corn syrup became a popular ingredient in foods around this time in the effort to decrease the fat content. “Reduced fat” products became appealing to consumers, though they tend to be much higher in carbohydrates and sugar than the regular versions.

As a result, the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar increased, which may have helped fuel the so-called “obesity epidemic” and the increased prevalence of diabetes and other chronic diseases.

In fact, studies find that replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates doesn’t improve heart health, whereas replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat does improve heart health.

Which factors affect the standard American diet?

Many factors affect the American diet, such as:

  • Knowledge about nutrition. People with limited knowledge of proper nutrition can be more likely to follow an unhealthy diet, especially if it’s similar to the diet they were raised on.

  • Living situations. People who live in places without proper cooking appliances, such as ovens, may prepare more processed/convenience foods. Also, people living in rural areas without as much access to fast food may eat healthier than people who have several fast food locations within walking distance.

  • Socioeconomic status. People with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to have a less healthy diet, whereas people of higher socioeconomic status tend to eat healthier. Efforts to improve the nutritional status of lower-income Americans exist, such as the WIC (Women Infants and Children) program. Through the WIC program, eligible participants are given vouchers for nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, as well as receiving nutrition education during visits.

What are the consequences of eating the standard American diet?

Following a Western diet rich in calories, total fat added sugars, and sodium can lead to many health problems. Also, Americans are less active than they used to be. The combination of a less-healthy diet and reduced activity level have contributed to the rise in obesity.

Obesity occurs when a person’s body mass index (BMI) reaches 30 or greater. Being obese tends to increase the risk of developing certain chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40% of adult Americans were considered obese between 2015 and 2016. In addition, the obesity rate nationwide has increased by 70% for adults, and by 85% for children over the last 30 years.

People who are obese are more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, liver and kidney disease, sleep apnea, and depression.

The risks for disease and health complications are worsened by a sedentary lifestyle, which affects many Americans due to sedentary jobs, commuting time, increased time spent watching television, and overall lack of regular physical activity.

Health issues caused by the standard American diet

Prediabetes and diabetes are increasing in prevalence among Americans. About one in three Americans are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and many of them may not even know it. Being at an increased risk of diabetes is called prediabetes. Diabetes affects about 1 in 10 Americans, with the majority of them having type 2.

According to the CDC, the other lifestyle-related chronic diseases leading cause of death in Americans include heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic kidney disease. About six out of ten American adults have one chronic disease, and about four of ten American adults have two or more chronic diseases.

Other factors besides diet that increase the risk of these diseases include tobacco use, lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol use. Metabolic syndrome is also prevalent among Americans.

Metabolic syndrome includes a cluster of symptoms that increase the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Risk factors for metabolic syndrome include high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, and increased waist circumference.

Which common diseases and disorders could be remedied with better nutrition?

Managing type 2 diabetes and prediabetes is largely related to diet. Some people with type 2 diabetes can manage their blood sugars through diet and lifestyle alone. Lifestyle changes, including proper nutrition, may also prevent prediabetes from turning into type 2 diabetes.

People with high blood pressure and heart disease can also improve their health outcomes by focusing on heart-healthy foods and reducing sodium intake.

A more plant-based diet, such as a Mediterranean diet, is linked with reduced morbidity and mortality from chronic disease. A Mediterranean diet is quite different from the Western diet, as the reliance on ultra-processed foods is much lower than in the Western diet.

Prediabetes and type 2 diabetes are largely impacted by lifestyle. Healthy lifestyle habits are quite effective in reducing people’s diabetes risk.

Good nutrition also plays a role in reducing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers, as well as other lifestyle factors such as physical activity, avoiding tobacco, etc.

What should your daily diet include?

According to the 2015-2020 US Dietary Guidelines, the following are major recommendations for a healthy diet:

  • Aim for half of your plate to consist of fruits and vegetables.

  • Focus on whole fruits, and eat a variety of vegetables.

  • Make at least half of your grains whole grains.

  • Choose low-fat dairy products.

  • Vary your protein; e.g., eat legumes, nuts, tofu, fish, etc. instead of just red meat.

  • Consume less sodium (less than 2,300 milligrams) per day.

  • Consume fewer added sugars (less than 10% of total calories from added sugar).

  • Saturated fat, which tends to be over-consumed by Americans, is recommended to comprise less than 5-6% of total calories per day, per the American Heart Association. For example, a 2,000 calorie diet should have no more than around 13 grams of fat per day (2,000 calories divided by 9 calories per gram of fat).

How many meals a day should you eat?

There aren’t specific recommendations in place for how many meals or snacks a person should have to be healthy.

Instead, people should focus on being mindful when it comes to their hunger and fullness cues. This means avoiding overeating, as well as trying to eat when hunger cues are present, which can help prevent overeating later.

The correct amount of meals and snacks a person should eat depends on their body composition, activity level, and other health conditions, among other factors.

There has been an increasing focus on the science behind intermittent fasting, which has increased in popularity in America. Intermittent fasting is linked with reduced insulin resistance and other positive health outcomes. Intermittent fasting involves eating within a specific time range, such as an 8-hour window, and fasting the rest of the 16 hours of the day.

What should you cut out of your diet?

While no food needs to be completely cut out of a diet to be considered healthy, certain foods don’t provide many health benefits.

These foods should be eaten less frequently than nutrient-rich, whole foods. Examples of foods to avoid eating regularly that are common in the American diet include:

  • Processed foods, such as deli meats, frozen dinners, boxed meals, etc.

  • Fast-food high in sodium and saturated fat.

  • Added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup, among other sweeteners, which are present in sugary desserts, sweetened drinks, etc.

  • Trans-fats in the form of partially-hydrogenated oils.


Overall, it’s recommended to adjust eating habits to include more whole, fresh foods. Stepping away from overly-processed and convenience foods and preparing more meals at home is one of the best steps Americans can take to avoid the potential dangers of the average American diet.

Including more physical activity is just as important as improving nutrition, as a sedentary lifestyle remains a significant risk factor for chronic diseases. Improving nutrition knowledge is another essential piece in the puzzle of improving the health of Americans.


  1. Totsch SK1, Quinn TL1, Strath LJ1, McMeekin LJ2, Cowell RM2, Gower BA3, Sorge RE4.. (2017). The impact of the Standard American Diet in rats: Effects on behavior, physiology and recovery from inflammatory injury.. Scandinavian Journal of Pain. 1 (1), p316-324.

  2. Grotto, D, Zied, E. (2010). The Standard American Diet and Its Relationship to the Health Status of Americans. Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 25 (6), p603-12.
  3. Martínez Steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada MLDC, et alUltra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional studyBMJ Open 2016;6:e009892. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892

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