How the American Diet Sets a Bad Example for the World
How the American Diet Sets a Bad Example for the World

News Analysis

One in two people worldwide are either overweight, nutrient-deficient, or hungry, representing a dietary imbalance of epic proportions.

In 40 years, we have transitioned from a world with twice the number of hungry people as obese people to a world where obesity is more prevalent. Six countries—the United States, U.K., Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand—led the change, according to a massive study published by the Lancet in early April.

Despite definite inequities in how the food we produce is distributed, the world produces more than enough food to feed us all. Theoretically, if we could just figure out how to eat a balanced diet—so those who were overweight lost weight, and those who were hungry had more to eat—then everyone would be optimally fed.

A new study by the World Resources Institute looks at how such a laudable goal might be achieved. We could not only improve our health, but more importantly, we could also make it possible for everyone to have enough, not just now, but well into the future.

It Started in America

The study focused on what would happen if we changed what we eat, and it focused on the overconsumption part of the imbalance.

A woman shops for frozen foods on an aisle across from sodas and other sugary drinks for sale at a superrmarket in Monterey Park, California on June 18, 2014. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman shops in an aisle across from sodas and other sugary drinks for sale at a superrmarket in Monterey Park, Calif., on June 18, 2014. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
As it stands, the average American diet is the worst in the world, both in terms of overconsumption and waste.

The first scenario focused on reducing the overconsumption of calories, the second on reducing the intake of animal-based protein, and the third on reducing the consumption of beef, which is by far the most inefficient form of protein on the planet.

All dietary changes brought positive environmental and human health benefits, but the scenario that was most effective was the second, which encouraged an across-the-board reduction in animal-based protein consumption.

As it stands, the average American diet is the worst in the world, both in terms of overconsumption and waste.

When compared to other countries’ diets, the study found an average diet in America contained almost 500 more calories than the average world diet. Even more alarming, the resources and negative environmental impact associated with producing our daily food is nearly twice the world average.

The facts prove that Americans overconsume: Obesity in our country is the highest in the world, with more than one-third of American adults and approximately 9 million children suffering from the disease, according to U.S. government data.

Americans also gorge on meat. We are the forth-highest meat-consuming country in the world, measured per capita, after Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, according to the OECD, and we get more of our daily protein intake from animal-based sources than any other country, according to the study.

People in the developing world are increasingly clamoring to catch a taste of the highly palatable American dream.

In fact, the study found an estimated 90 percent of all agricultural land use in this country is used in the production of animal protein for the American diet.

Americans get more protein from meat than any other country in the world. (CC0 Public Domain)
Americans get more protein from meat than any other country in the world. (CC0 Public Domain)

Our diet has already influenced much of the developed world, where the consumption of meat and processed foods is on the rise.

As their per capita wealth grows, people in the developing world are increasingly clamoring to catch a taste of the highly palatable American dream.

According to the World Resources Institute study, eating habits globally are converging toward Western-style diets high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and fats (collectively known as highly processed food), and large amounts of animal protein.

If Americans were asked which they preferred to be, a normal weight or overweight, few would choose the latter.

The study cites rising incomes, urbanization along with access to fast food and convenience foods, as well as technology, business, and economic changes supported by government policies as the factors that are transforming other food systems to look more like ours.

An Obesity Epidemic

Obesity in America is the highest in the world, with more than one third of American adults and approximately nine million children suffering from the disease. (ROBYN BECK,RONALDO SCHEMIDT,PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Obesity in America is the highest in the world, with more than one-third of American adults and approximately 9 million children suffering from the disease. (ROBYN BECK,RONALDO SCHEMIDT,PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Processed foods may bring welcome conveniences to people’s lives, but evidence of this dietary change’s negative consequences are already appearing in leading developing countries such as China, India, Brazil, and Mexico.

In China, for example, the obesity rate tripled between 1991 and 2006, according to World Resources Institute. Roughly a quarter of the adult Chinese population today is overweight or obese.

In India, the number of people living with diabetes, a result of the overconsumption of sugar, tripled between 1995 and 2014, to 66.8 million, according to India’s national television network NDTV. Interestingly, NDTV’s post is titled: “Diabetes: The Epidemic That Indians Created.”

NDTV’s point is that these diseases are preventable. They are directly correlated to what we eat.

How Do We Change?

If Americans were asked which they preferred to be, a normal weight or overweight, few would choose the latter. We want to eat a healthy diet.

The idea of a balanced diet is an elusive one for many of us.

But these days, it is hard to even know what that means. The idea of a balanced diet is an elusive one for many of us. Our understanding of what we should eat has been manipulated by government policy, big-food marketing messages, the latest fad diets, and even misleading scientific studies.

Further confusing the public is the little-acknowledged fact that what is healthy for one person may not be healthy for another. Some people thrive on fat. For others, it’s a toxin. The same could be said for milk (lactose), bread (gluten), nuts (allergies), raw food, spicy food, meat, and sugar. Probably, we all need to decide for ourselves on a diet that works. 

One point, however, that is very relevant to this discussion and is getting a lot of attention today, is what is now seen as a big mistake our government made when it recommended that Americans pursue a low-fat diet.

The link between dietary fat and heart disease was based on scientists’ recommendations that have since been largely debunked.  

Some health researchers today believe most of us gained most of our weight as a result of this mistake. The government policy supported decades of irresponsible food-manufacturing practices.

Early supporters of a low-fat diet probably didn’t anticipate that food processors would replace the fat in their processed food formulas with added sugars, and that sugar would become such a big problem in our diet.

Researchers pointed out that our consumption of added sugars has increased 30-fold since 1776.

Sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup like that found in most soft drinks, has now been strongly linked to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Refined sugar, known as sucrose and comprised of 50 percent fructose, is also a concern.

Cupcakes with frosting contain large amounts of added sugar. (Creative Commons CC0)
Cupcakes with frosting contain large amounts of added sugar. (Creative Commons CC0)

Research published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a peer-reviewed medical journal, in March of 2015, for example, found that consumption of large amounts of added sugar is driving the diabetes and obesity epidemic in the United States.

The study allowed researchers to understand that different types of calories have different metabolic effects in the body.

Fructose, the type of sugar found in many processed foods, is metabolized very rapidly and leads to harmful fat storage, worsening insulin levels, inflammation, and high blood pressure.

The researchers pointed out that our consumption of added sugars has increased 30-fold since 1776. 

Sugar in the form that we consume it today used to be exceptionally rare. Two hundred years ago, the average person consumed just 4 pounds per year. By 1994, the average person was consuming 120 pounds per year. That is about a third of a pound of added sugar a day!

Our bodies convert food into energy, and our main source of energy is a sugar called glucose. While some glucose is found in proteins and fats, the majority comes from carbohydrates, such as bread, rice, milk, vegetables, and fruit.

Some fruits and vegetables also contain fructose. But James J. DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, who led the Mayo research, said in a video associated with the research that fructose in the whole food form is okay.

“We are not condemning the consumption of fruit or other vegetables or fruit that has fructose in it,” he said.

Until it changed in 2015, the influential U.S. Dietary Guidelines allowed for up to 19 percent of daily calories to come from added sugars. When it changed, this was reduced to 10 percent.

This is a good start, but there is a long way to go.

The World Health Organization has recommended 10 percent since 1989. In 2015, it issued a conditional recommendation for countries to consider reducing added sugar consumption to 5 percent.

The recommendation is likely to produce a desirable health effect, WHO states in a media release, but it’s conditional because few studies have been done in populations with a low sugar intake. Such a population is probably extremely difficult to find. 

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