The 7 deadly sins of the Standard American Diet
I think that the Standard American Diet has an appropriate abbreviation. SAD. And that's just how it will make you feel. You'll be sad because of how unhealthy you look and also because you will be in a state of hormonal imbalance that will likely affect your mood! Everyone knows of the increasing rates of heart disease, cancer, blood sugar issues and so on. The standard american diet is to blame for that and could be a factor in our high rates of dependence on all kinds of medications from anti-depressants to statins. Other countries dont share our same food pyramid (they must not be as influenced by corrupt industries and organizations like the FDA or special interest groups) and anyone who moves from another country to America typically gains weight. According to the huffington post (article here) America has finally been dethroned when it comes to most obese nation! Apparently we are now beating Mexico by 1%, but still 31.8% of our nations population is considered obese and 69% total could be considered at least overweight. Why does our country have such high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes? What are we doing that the rest of the world isn't? Here's a list of the 7 worst sins of the SAD eating regimen, in no particular order. It was quite hard to narrow it down. By avoiding these cardinal sins you will gain entrance to the gates of optimal health!
1. Too many carbohydrates and sugars
The average American consumes the majority of their calories from carbohydrates, especially when they are watching their dietary fat intake. Carbs are a quick easy source of food/energy and most people are dependent on them for their energy needs. By consuming a high percentage of ones diet in carbs (especially simple carbs such as breads, cereals, pastas and refined sugar) blood sugar levels are elevated. This increase in blood sugar causes higher insulin levels and resistance as well as an increase in cortisol and thus inflammation. This increase in cortisol triggers elevated blood sugar, repeating the whole vicious cycle continously. (here's a good article from precision nutrition about this) Not only will your body feel the repercussions but your mental clarity and mood will as well. Consuming too many carbs also leads to excess fat storage as soon as glycogen needs are met. Your body is less efficient at burning fat tissues when its getting a constant stream of sugars (which carbs ultimately are) to meet its energy needs.
And this doesn't even mention gluten and all the issues that come from consuming this as well, which is mostly through processed carbohydrates. SAD is full of gluten which is a wheat protein present in all breads, cereals, and pastas and most soy products. Gluten deserves its own article but I will simply say it causes many issues in a lot of peoples digestion and mental clarity. Someone who may be otherwise unaffected by small amounts of gluten can develop an intolerance when its consumed in large amounts from all these different sources.
Instead you should consume most of your calories from healthy fats and animal proteins. Carbohydrates should contain about 10-35% of your daily calories depending on your goals and exercise regimen. I look at carbs the same way I look at medicine. You want to go with the minimum effective dose. So basically if you are 30 lbs over weight and sit all day long and dont really workout you don't need many carbs for that and 10% is fine. Every activity you are engaged in can be done optimally using stored fat for fuel. Someone with a goal of gaining muscle who is quite lean and workouts intensely is going to require closer to 35%. Also carbs should come mostly from fibrous veggies, squash, sweet potatoes and yams. A small amount could come from certain fruits or grains for some people. Avoid refined sugars completely.
2. Mutated fats!
Hydrogenated oils are very common in the SAD. These being used in the cooking process for mass produced items is the main culprit for the dreaded trans fat. Trans Fatty Acids are a crazy zombie version of the real fats we use to help form our cell membranes. They actually lower HDL while raising LDL and triglycerides. Even the corrupt FDA is finally recognizing this and is making a move to get trans fat off the generally safe for consumption list.
Quick biology review: When you break an individual cell down you get 3 main components- phospholipids, glycolipids, and cholesterol. Phospholipids are the largest component by far in forming the cell walls and ideally are made up of a mix of healthy saturated and unsaturated fats. When this is the case the cell membrane is slightly permeable so that it can transmit both nutrients and waste to and from the cell. When our cell membranes are being formed by phospholipids composed of trans fats, things can get bad. These mutated fats don't quite fit right in the place of the component they're replacing and this leads to either too much or too little permeability within the cell membrane. Too much permeability can lead to an absorption of unwanted waste product which will cause inflammation, and too little permeability can prevent nutrients from being delivered and waste products being removed leading to cell degeneration. Pasteurized dairy fat has been shown to contribute to these problems as the chemical process it undergoes mutates the structure of the fats, which are used to make weak and permeable cell walls. Cholesterol plays a role in this as well and our decision of the kind of fats to consume will dictate that as well. Bottom line is you are what you eat--- and more than anything you are the fat that you eat.
So opt for healthy fats such as unrefined coconut oil, virgin olive oil (not excessively heated), raw nuts, grass fed dairy fat, and healthy animal meats. (be sure not to over cook those oils though!) Avoid any foods that have trans fats listed or if there are any partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list. Trans fats are in many such as many cereals, baking powders/mixes, any fried food, non dairy creamers, margarine, and popcorn. Also any pasteurized dairy fat should be avoided, as any pasteurized dairy product should. This is most common in milk and cheeses.
3. Eating food-like products instead of real food
Here's a tip: if you're considering eating something and you don't feel confident that you yourself can duplicate the ingredient list and make the same product on your own, don't put it in your body. Much of the SAD consists of foods so far removed from their natural state (see mutated fats above!) that they lack any real nutritional value and thus satiety. You may be stuffing your face with refined carbs like chips and taking in a lot of calories but not many vitamins or minerals that your body can utilize. Many of these products contain anti- nutrients in fact which can inhibit nutrient absorption. So despite not needing the excess calories your brain will still receive the impulse to eat since its still lacking in vital nutrients. Also our bodies have a difficult time using highly processed and chemically altered foods for the many complex and vital cellular processes our body undergoes. Instead your body will store the majority of calories consumed as fat since it doesn't really know what else to do with it. And many people, including myself, believe these kinds of zombie foods to be a culprit for many kinds of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
Many of these foods are full of preservatives that contribute to the fact that the average american gets about 3x the recommended daily value of sodium. Too much sodium can cause an increased risk of blood pressure issues, heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis since it leeches calcium from your bones. Also the food industry values cheap effectiveness which has resulted in the mutation of so many things we used to eat through commercial farming such as: farmed fish, corn fed caged chickens and eggs, penned pigs that are fed God knows what, industrial beef pumped full of hormones and antibiotics (we are one of the only countries that allows the use of hormones in our meat) and fruits/ vegetables are robbed of all nutritional value due to harsh pesticides. There is a very large corn industry that has managed to get some kind of (almost always genetically modified) unnecessary corn product into just about everything. These and other GMO's are every where and despite what some people may argue I believe them to be dangerous and think its just a matter of time before we have enough of a history with GMOs to see some real studies.
So avoid these edible food like products and instead eat as close to nature as possible. Animals should be eating things they are naturally made to eat, preferably in the environment they were designed to eat it in. Fruits and vegetables should not be sprayed with dangerous pesticides (which are linked to infertility in women). I recommend avoiding things full of artificial preservatives and binding ingredients, instead using natural ones like apple cider vinegar. In the perfect world I would opt to eat only freshly killed wild game, organic fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, and eggs from chickens that are allowed to root and roam as nature intended. Dairy products would be raw and full fat and any legumes would be sprouted. The further we move from these things the further we move from what nature intended and what's optimal for our bodies.
4. Inflammatory and inferior protein
As mentioned earlier most of the animal products we consume are sick creatures because they are being fed things that are not natural to them and being held captive in a manner that keeps them from moving around in a normal way. Industrial beef and pork in America are fed corn products that their digestive system is not designed for. They are given antibiotics because of the bacteria that forms in their stomach, as well as to combat the poor conditions in which these concentrated animal feeding operations run their business. In addition to the antibiotics, which can make humans more resistant to antibacterial medication if consumed, CAFO's use artificial hormones to increase "feed efficiency" in the cows. This means the animal will gain more weight and fat off the same amount of food. Sounds lovely to be ingesting these hormones right? This all leads to a fatter more inflammatory animal with hormonal issues. These animals cause inflammation in us as a result of omega 6 to omega 3 balance. Grass fed beef, pastured pork, and free range eggs have much higher quantities of omega 3 than their grain fed counterparts.
A large part of protein in the american diet comes from soy, which requires so much explanation I've made it one of the 7 deadly sins as well. Americans watching their cholesterol tend to get a larger percentage of their protein from soy sources and this can lead to a host of issues involving the thyroid, fertility, hormones, sex drive, digestion, and even be a factor for certain cancers. The other kind of protein common in the SAD is dairy protein. Unfortunately these dairy products are of course usually mutated somehow, this time its through the processes of pasteurization or homogenization. More on this later but the end result is an inflammatory protein that will cause digestive issues and negatively affect your gut biome.
The SAD includes too little protein in general, and the choices the average person makes when they do consume it typically is not optimal, they're eating sick inflammatory animals. All the animal studies that vegans and vegetarians base their arguments on are using these sick animals as the reference. The average vegan diet is 1000x better than the SAD but they are still missing some of the positive benefits that come from healthy animal protein like lowering of ldl (lean meats), high omega 3 (which is anti inflammatory and also lowers the risk of cancer), and the high conjugated linoleic acid content (lowers risk of heart disease and cancer, promotes fat burning). Not to mention the high bio availability of healthy animal protein. So eat a variety of grass fed animals, free range eggs, and wild fish primarily for protein. I would say for optimal health (for someone not physically active) you would need a minimum of 5 servings a week. If you're working out regularly then at least one serving a day. Avoid soy protein and processed dairy protein as well. Which leads us to.....
5. Processed dairy products
Normal unprocessed dairy has many health benefits but causes issues for a large group of people including myself. So something that is already not easily tolerated is processed to the point where most of the positive benefits are destroyed and nothing is left but an inflammatory and gut wrecking substance that lacks necessary digestive enzymes... makes sense yeah? Many Americans consume cheese, milk, and other pasteurized or homogenized products daily. Wheres this milk coming from? Oh yeah those sick animals mentioned earlier... so the same issues apply to their milk as their meat such as an unfavorable omega 6 to 3 balance which increases overall inflammation. Processed dairy also can trigger an insulin response and elevate blood sugar. Although this can happen in healthy dairy options its a much more temporary response.
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, “Pasteurization kills enzymes, denatures anti-microbial and immune-stimulating components, diminishes nutrient availability, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B6, and B12, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth and behavior problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis and heart disease. Homogenization is a process that breaks down butterfat globules so they do not rise to the top. This process unnaturally increases the surface area of fat exposing it to air, in which oxidation occurs and increases the susceptibility to spoilage. Homogenized milk has been linked to heart disease." So does milk really do a body good?? Not the procesed kind millions of Americans drink daily. Great advertising ploy. I blame you "Got Milk" ads!
There are benefits to be reaped for some people from raw grass fed dairy products such as calcium, omega 3's, healthy probiotics and enzymes. Pasteurized milk and cheeses should be avoided and I would advise starting gingerly to assess tolerance if using raw dairy products. Avoid margarine and zombie butter products that pose as low fat health foods. Opt for full fat butter from grass fed cows, like Kerrygold. Skip the Chobani greek yogurt and get some kefir or a coconut based substitute. In general dairy should be limited in my opinion, even the healthy options. Have you ever just felt fantastic and light after eating a meal with alot of cheese and dairy? Me neither.
6. Soy in everything
Not quite but just about. Here's a list of items you can find some soy usually hanging around in:
- Baked goods and baking mixes
- Bouillon cubes
- Chicken (raw or cooked) that is processed with chicken broth
- Chicken broth
- Deli meats
- Energy bars, nutrition bars
- Imitation dairy foods, such as soy milks, vegan cheese, or vegan ice cream
- Infant formula
- Meat products with fillers, for example, burgers or sausages
- Nutrition supplements (vitamins)
- Peanut butter and peanut butter substitutes
- Protein powders
- Sauces, gravies, and soups
- Vegetable broth
- Vegetarian meat substitutes: veggie burgers, imitation chicken patties, imitation lunch meats, imitation bacon bits, etc.
Many Americans view soy as a heart healthy alternative to dairy and animal products. This is a big mistake. Soy is one of those things that a small amount will likely not cause any real issues, but it is the cumulative effect over time that causes hormonal problems and prevents nutrient absorption. Soy, much like corn, is almost all genetically modified (>90%) and even organically grown and sprouted soybeans have issues if they are not fermented.
Soy contains a high amount of anti-nutrients like phytates (inhibit absorption of calcium and other minerals), trypsin inhibitors (interferes with protein digestion), goitrogens (contributes to hypothyroidism and hormonal issues), phytoestrogens (plant comounds that resemble estrogen to your body, only as weaker than natural. Your body can over produce estrogen as a response), Saponins (compounds that can bind to intestinal walls causing leaky gut) and hemagglutinin (a clot promoting substance that binds together red blood cells disrupting their essential functions). There are studies linking soy consumption to lowered testosterone in men and elevated estrogen especially in women.
Remember that 90%+ of soybeans are genetically modified. Out of the remaining 10% or so very few of those soy beans are fermented, which is the optimal way to consume soy. Fermented soy can have benefits such as high amounts of vitamin k, and it also removes anti-nutrients mentioned above.
7. Fake health foods
The SAD is not healthy, and many people are aware of this and are looking for healthier alternatives. Unfortunately most focus on calories and fat rather than the foods nutritional density. There's too much of an emphasis on keeping fat intake very low for weight management and heart health, but this is really just a product of the entanglement of the FDA, pharmaceutical companies, and the commerical food industry that all have an interest in keeping the wheat and corn and soy industries afloat for different reasons. This constant focus on calories leads people towards pasteurized fat free dairy items (the worst kind for you) and the kind of food like products as mentioned above. These highly processed low fat options offer next to no nutritional value and thus no satiety. We didn't even know how to measure calories until the 1950's, and now our country is the fattest we've ever been despite an almost obsessive focus on calories
Someone looking to get healthy might wake up to a bowl of "nutritious" low fat milk and "heart healthy" shredded wheat. Big cup of coffee using non fat non dairy creamer. Maybe some fruit like banana or an apple for a snack. Lunch might be a whole wheat sandwhich with 99% fat free turkey. Maybe snack on some string cheese or something. Low fat of course. Dinner might be a salad with chicken and some fat free dressing that is full of unnatural ingredients and artifical sweeteners. After dinner since you've been so good you reward yourself just one cookie, cupcake, candy or whatever it is that you are craving so desperately because youre most likely starving shortly after dinner. Instead of optimal health you'll be a hormonal mess with blood sugar issues and gut problems. And probably wont feel or look the way you want to because most of the previous sins of the SAD apply to this "lite" version of the SAD.
When trying to change habits and become healthy its important to address the primary culprits of bad health and weight gain. This is going to be related to hormonal balance, inflammation, gut health, and stable blood sugar levels. Don't be tricked by health benefits claimed by products such as: whole wheat, soy protein, low fat or fat free dairy, and highly processed low calorie "snacks". These will not focus on the real underlying problems. The healthiest option will be the most natural least processed option. And its important to not become overly focused on calories, because this will likely lead to excess carbs and fat storage. Eat lots of vegetables and a higher percentage of fats than carbohydrates.
So can we Americans be saved? Or are we destined to always duke it out with our Mexican bretheren down south for the title of fattest people?
The first thing that would need to happen in my opinion is for the FDA to untangle itself from the pharmaceutical industry because it is affecting the kind of information Americans are receiving on what a healthy balanced diet is. More and more studies continue to come out about the misconceptions of fat (especially saturated) and the role it plays in our health. People worry about cholesterol from animal products and saturated fat and consume low fat grains and wheat products instead. While there is still more work to be done more and more researchers are seeing that refined carbohydrates are actually much more to blame for our heart disease epidemic than healthy fats. Not to mention the amount of insulin resistance and rates of diabetes that people following a "heart healthy" diet experience.
Next we have to reconstruct the food pyramid. We have to change our ideas of what the makeup of a healthy sustainable diet is. Heres the SAD food pyramid that we all know and live or have lived by. Next to it is something that would be more optional. Its a paleo food pyramid for the active individual but it applies to everyone. The only thing I would say is it would be ok to include some white rice if you have no issues with glucose regulation, it would be on par with the amount of high fat dairy, maybe a little more if you are working out intensely.
The last, most important and most difficult, thing needed is a complete shift in consciousness and awareness when it comes to diet. What I mean by that is instead of focusing on convenience since your life is so busy and hectic take the time to actually prepare your food or eat something natural instead of a highly processed quick meal. You will be much more efficient with your time and energy (and brain power!) if you take an extra 60-90 minutes two times a week to prepare your food in a natural and healthy way. What's the point of saving time on eating by getting something quick and unhealthy when in reality you would probably get more work and whatever tasks you have in front of you done more efficiently when you're full of energy and you're brain is working optimally.
Despite the fact that I've written this article in a slight holier than thou manner I do understand how hard it is to not only start healthy habits but to first break unhealthy ones. Many people advocate a start slow approach. They might recommend you remove the most harmful aspects of your diet (refined sugar and trans fats), while limiting the less than ideal food choices, all the while inching toward a state of optimal health by slowly removing unhealthy foods and cooking habits. I understand why many of my peers recommend this approach, in order to ensure a base level of compliance. I do not agree with this however. (as any of my clients will attest!) The problem with this approach in my mind is the fact that you are basically operating off of sheer willpower. When you have a mind set of "im on a diet, I have to avoid all these things" you feel deprived and eventually you will have a fault in willpower and put some toxic food like substance in your body. Willpower is a start but not enough on its own. It must lead to a whole change in mindset. You avoid these food-like substances because they don't even register in your head as food. Think about it, this eliminates the need for extreme will power simply by changing your perceptions. Don't look at a bagel and think "oh I can't eat that, I'm on a diet" instead look at it and think "oh I cant eat that, its not real food, its not even an option." It may not happen over night but this shift in consciousness will happen once you start to see and feel the benefits of a healthy balanced diet.
- When you start to feel hunger, sit with it for just a bit. Don't put something in your mouth right away. Wait between another 30 minutes and 2 hours then eat something high in healthy fat and low in carbs
- Avoid artificial sweeteners and colors or dyes
- Alcohol! Limit consumption and stick to red wine preferably, 2 glasses max
- Don't allow yourself cheat meals. This will contribute to the dieting mindset. You are not on a diet, you just only eat real food.
- Don't eat too often! Another common mistake is eating very small frequent meals. These meals usually contain carbs and keep your body running on sugar instead of fat. I typically fast the first part of the day and then eat 2-3 large meals.
- Some people have issues even with grass fed butter and tolerate ghee much better. I use grass-fed ghee from cows.
- Raw milk and raw cheese can be obtained at places like Sprouts and Whole Foods and can be healthy additions if tolerated
- When eating out at a restaurant I recommend opting for wild seafood and vegetables, unless they serve grass fed beef which would be great as well
- Feel free to eat 1-2 dark chocolate bars a week that's are over 80%
- Don't be afraid to bring your own condiments! I have been known to carry Himalayan salt and ghee on my person when eating out.
- Try a kale shake to get in your daily dose of veggies. I make one containing kale, cucumber, ginger, celery, pinapple, blueberries and spinach. and add a little coconut oil to make sure I absorb all the fat soluble vitamins in it.
- When sweetening things use natural sources such as stevia drops (not the powder or packages), or raw honey (in moderation), or sugar alcohols ( I avoid these for digestive reasons however so be careful)
Best of luck on your journey to a new mindset!