- The Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of processed foods, high in refined sugar and flour, with minimal fruit, vegetables, and other nutrient-dense foods.
- Cultures that adopt the SAD have increased the prevalence of chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease.
- Straying away from SAD norms has resulted in improved health markers and reduced disease risk.
- The American medical profession lacks adequate nutrition training and focuses on treatment rather than prevention.
Conflicting nutrition advice and the practice of modifying food products to increase their nutritional value distracts us from a major cause of poor health in the developed world: the Standard American Diet (SAD). We can also call it the Standard Western Diet since America is not the only problem country.
This diet largely consists of processed foods, full of refined sugars, oils, and flour. It doesn’t include a sufficient amount of fruit, vegetables or other fiber-rich foods. In short, the reason for our general poor health isn’t nutrients – it’s our higher level food choices. Research undertaken around the world has shown that, in general, people who avoid the Western diet also avoid its associated health risks.
In the 1930s, a dentist named Weston A. Price traveled the world searching for isolated populations that subsisted solely on a native diet. He discovered that these populations, in places as distinct as the Arctic and Australia, and with equally different diets, did not need dental care. Those people who weren’t exposed to refined flour, sugar and vegetable oils didn’t suffer from many common chronic diseases or tooth decay.
In the 1980s, nutrition researcher Kerin O’Dea performed an experiment in which she asked ten Aborigines, who had migrated several years before to settlements in Australia and adopted a Western diet, to return to their native lands for seven weeks. While living in the Westernized settlements, the ten men had developed type 2 diabetes, elevated levels of triglycerides (which can lead to heart disease) and increased risk of obesity and hypertension. During their time back on the old grounds, the men returned to their native diet: seafood, birds and kangaroo, and occasionally turtle, crocodile and bush honey. By the end of their stay, all ten had reached a healthy weight and lowered their blood pressure and other risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes.
To understand how we got to this point (being the A in SAD) we must zoom out and focus on the economics, politics, and social dynamics at play. The big players in the food market will do anything to outcompete their rivals, making foods more addictive and less healthy in the process. Small, family-owned farms who practice natural farming and treat their animals humanely cannot compete with the machine-like efficiency of the modern farming industry. As a side-effect, the high price of naturally grown and pasture-raised foods make them inaccessible to most of us. Moreover, there is very little regulation around the marketing of foods, making it hard to make sense of all the labeling found on food products (cage-free does not mean pasture-raised).
At the same time, the medical profession is focused on treatment rather than prevention and education. The number of people struggling with lifestyle-related diseases is growing each year, and we are leading the developed world in medical spending at almost $4 trillion per year (larger than the GDP of the UK). Only 25 percent of all US medical schools offer a single course in nutrition (a 37 percent decline from 30 years ago). This is no accident. In 2001, a bill was introduced in California that would require physicians to receive 12 hours of nutritional training over four years, but the California Medical Association strongly opposed it. The California Medical Board does require all doctors to receive 12 hours of training in pain management and end-of-life care but clearly has less interest in nutrition.
These are not problems that can be solved in one day or even one generation, but we have to start somewhere. You can show your support by doing something as simple as visiting your local farmer's market. You can also ask for a change in your children's schools (remember pizza, chocolate milk, and soda in the cafeterias?). Children receive very little guidance as to what is or is not healthy, and schools are not setting very good examples. We live in a world where your choices as a consumer have large downstream effects on the corporations who control the food economy, so be an advocate for your health and choose foods which are as close to their natural state as possible.
Phew! In the next section, we'll get back to talking about the complexities and causes of obesity.