The term "standard American diet" refers to a diet rich in animal proteins and fats, high in cholesterol and saturated fats, high in processed foods, and low in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and vegetables.
You're not off the hook if you don't live in the states because it's not just an American problem- some people refer to this type of eating as the Western pattern diet as it's readily eaten in Westernized, industrialized, and wealthier nations.
I think one of the more common misconceptions is that humans always ate the way we eat now. This simply isn't true. Before we had such easy access to meat and dairy products, humans were gatherers who hunted for occasional meat. We ate fruit, vegetables, grains, seeds, nuts, fish, and sometimes meat.
It was only within the past few generations that Americans (and other Westerners) began eating so many processed foods and the huge amounts of animal products, following the standard American diet.
While the first feedlots started in the 1850s, the modern feedlot wasn't created until the 1950s, and that's when demand for meat begin its ascent. Since then, we have been eating more sugar, refined flours, fats and starches, and eating meals at fast food restaurants and from cans and boxes.
Even those people who try to eat "healthy" diets are often overdoing it in the meat, fish, and dairy department and are loading their bodies with cholesterol, saturated fat, and all the antibiotics, pesticides, and chemicals that were fed to those factory farmed animals.
The human body isn't made to absorb so much fat, sugar, and salt, and is staging a rebellion against anyone who follows the diet. Multiple studies show that people who eat the most meat and dairy products suffer from the most degenerative diseases, and that those who eat the least meat and dairy products are least likely to suffer from those same diseases.
I would imagine that most people realize that a fast food standard American diet is not good for your health, and that high cholesterol leads to heart disease and is a health hazard. But did you know that your body makes enough cholesterol for your needs and that you do not need to eat ANY cholesterol to be healthy?
Even picking the skin off the chicken and choosing lean cuts of meat does not decrease the amount of cholesterol in your food?
The only place cholesterol comes from in nature is animal products, including all meats, dairy products, eggs, fish, and shellfish. Reducing the amount of cholesterol in your diet makes a drastic difference in your risk for heart attacks and other degenerative diseases.
Most people are aware that reducing your fat intake can help decrease the risk for heart attack, but most people also look at the wrong number when comparing fats. The most important number for measuring fat is the percentage of calories from fat, NOT the fat grams or calories.
According to PCRM.org, we should be getting about 15 percent of our calories from fat.
The standard American diet includes eating the first four from the list and occasionally supplementing with the last category, rather than the other way around like in traditional Asian cultures.
There was an amazing study done by Dr. Dean Ornish that found that heart disease can be reversed without medicine or surgery. He found that 82% of his heart disease patients that attempted a vegan diet were able to reverse their heart disease.
"Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." -- Albert Einstein
It seems almost unbelievable, but yet, it makes so much sense. If cholesterol is linked to heart problems, and vegans don't eat cholesterol, they will have lower cholesterol levels in their blood and develop fewer coronary artery diseases.
Vegetarians typically have lower cholesterol levels than meat eaters who follow the standard American diet, and vegans have lower levels than vegetarians.
Cancer is thought to be incurable, but studies show that breast cancer, colorectal, prostate, kidney, and pancreatic cancers are more common in people whose diet is high in animal products. The World Health Organization found vegetarians to be 40% less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters.
Seventh Day Adventists all avoid alcohol and tobacco and lead healthy lifestyles, and about half of the group is vegetarians, while the other half eats meat. This was a great group to study because each group serves as a control for the other, and the main risk factor they have is the meat eating. A study found that vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists have a much lower risk of cancer than the meat eating Seventh Day Adventists
In Japan, the traditional diet contains less than 10% of its calories from fat. Not surprisingly, breast cancer levels are traditional very low in Japan. However, when someone is more affluent and eats more meat, or when a Japanese person moves to the US and adopts a typical American diet where about 30-35% of calories are from fat, they are more likely to develop breast cancer. Additional studies have found that reducing the amount of animal products you eat lowers your risk for breast cancer later in life.
A large contributing factor to colorectal cancer seems to be the daily consumption of 2-3 ounces of red meat (like beef, pork, and lamb.) That means if you eat a hamburger a day, or 1 oz of cold cuts 5-6 times a week for men and 2-3 times a week for females, you are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer. Even if you eat white meat, you have about 3 times the risk of colon cancer as a vegetarian.
The same pattern is true of prostate, pancreatic, and kidney cancer as well. Studies show an association between red meat consumption and prostate cancer risk. Men who eat 5 servings of meat a week are about 2.5 times as likely to develop prostate cancer as men who eat it less than once a week. It is also found that reducing or eliminating meat reduces the risk for prostate cancer.
There are many reasons that cancer is associated with meat. First, it has no dietary fiber, which helps food pass through the body and aids in digestion in the intestine. Second, eating the fat in meat increases the production of hormones, which can increase cancer cell development.
And also, it is found that heating meat to a very high temperature creates carcinogens in the meat, health hazards that are linked to cancer. Meat is the building block of the standard American diet, and now we know that the building block is killing us, so it's time to rebuild.
Diabetes is another illness linked to the standard American diet. Most studies and doctors focus on sugar and carbohydrate levels, so finding an association with another dietary choice could be incredibly helpful for those people suffering from the illness. When diabetics start following standard ADA guidelines and lower their sugar and carbohydrate intake, they also tend to start eating more fat, which makes it harder for insulin to get glucose into the body.
Studies have found that diabetes patients who adopt a low-fat vegetarian or vegan diet are able to lose weight, lower their hemoglobin levels, and reduce or end their medications. Adults who have type 2 diabetes can sometimes permanently eliminate their medicine, and people with type 1 diabetes can reduce the amount of insulin they need to take.
I grew up on the standard American diet, though I did eat a lot of fruits and vegetables as well. I was always taught that little girls who drank lots and lots of milk grew up to be strong, tall women.
In fact, while it is helpful to increase the calcium we eat, it is also important to reduce our calcium losses. Calcium loss happens partially because of genetics, but also because of the food we eat. The amount of protein we get from animals, salt and caffeine have a large impact on calcium loss. The other factors are lack of exercise, smoking, and not getting enough sun.
Milk has an animal protein called casein which actually takes calcium from the bones, making it harder for our bodies to absorb calcium. The more animal protein you eat, the harder it is to get your calcium needs.
Rather than following the standard American diet to get your calcium, try some plant-based calcium foods such as dark green leafy vegetables like collards, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and turnip greens, and beans like pinto, black-eyes peas, navy beans, and tofu.
Even some neurological diseases like Alzheimer's are related to the standard American diet. Though much of the blame for the cause of Alzheimer's is genetic, studies show that people who eat large amounts of cholesterol, saturated fats, and calories and not much fiber, vegetables, or fruit have a higher incidence of the disease. And, people who eat the highest amount of vegetables, fruits, and fiber decline in mental capacity much slower.
Many studies have found that some forms of arthritis are actually influenced by diet. People have found that dairy leads to rheumatoid arthritis, and that by eliminating dairy they can eliminate their arthritis symptoms.
Dr. Neal Barnard wrote a great book on a four-week anti-arthritis diet called Foods that Fight Pain that shows how to avoid these health hazards.
It's hard to pinpoint one exact thing to blame for the development of the standard American diet, but now that we are beginning to realize how detrimental it is to our health, I hope that we will start making changes that will impact our future wellness.