Why the American diet is so unhealthy, explained
Updated: May 6
By Jack Solano
To be healthy means to be able to take care of yourself. It is attractive, promotes confidence, and feels good.
In a world where it seems to be increasingly difficult to maintain good health, it might be time to become increasingly picky in what exactly we are consuming.
But it’s getting harder to do that.
“There is so much contradictory information out there. I think some people are just paralyzed,” said nutritionist Sarah Nelson.
What we do know is that the average American has gotten bigger. According to the CDC, the adult obesity rate has nearly tripled since 1970, from 13% to 36%, while the childhood obesity rate has more than tripled, from 7% to 22%, in that same time period.
Obesity is measured by Body Mass Index, and a BMI of over 30 is considered obese.
How is it that in just over 50 years, Americans have gotten so unhealthy, so quickly? The answers lie in the food we eat, the things we believe, and our reluctance to act.
How have we gotten here?
Essentially, we are being taken advantage of while also being lazy and naive. Humanity has changed its diet drastically just in the past half century or so.
One specific event that catapulted these changes is the modern avoidance of “fat” foods.
“When they changed the food pyramid in the 1980s, they made the bottom of the food pyramid like 10 servings of simple carbs. And all of a sudden, people demonized fat. Everybody started eating nonfat,” said Nelson.
When the food industry took out the fat but added sugar and addictive chemicals, Nelson pointed out that's "really when everyone in America started getting fat."
The food industry saw the low fat, high carb motto trend as an opportunity to create a whole new range of products like fat-free cookies and desserts.
The ingredient to making money was placing the low fat label on the product and dumping it with sugar and salt.
“If you go back in time, our bodies evolved over millions of years of evolution, all our organs adapted when things were actually natural,” Nelson explained. “Our bodies were not ready for such an abrupt change in how we eat.” Nelson said. "Today’s 10-year-old kids have already had more sugar than a person 100 years ago had in their entire life."
“Because sugar is in everything now, it's in ketchup, it's in bread, we've just created this perfect storm of really unnatural eating,” she said.
Large scale food processing partly to blame
The average consumer is not choosing to eat like this. We just do not know how bad our daily consumption habits are.
Whether we are playing into the hands of big industry food or not, it’s working for them as a handful of food companies make billions off our bad choices.
Another significant factor is the average American’s general unwillingness to change their habits. If something tastes good, if it’s cheap, if it’s easy to get, they don’t care too much about the nutritional value or detriment.
Michael Lynch worked as a packaging intern at Tyson Foods. Being involved in the processes helped him understand why things are developing this way.
“The American consumer is not willing to be that adventurous,” he said. “They're not necessarily willing to try new things.”
He also touched on just how large the company has to scale in order to reach its custom
“The hardest part about running a company this large is there's 300 million Americans to satisfy with a protein-heavy diet,” he said. “The expectations that come with the responsibility to feed as many people as we do, they understand the volume that's required. The key is to keep the price point relatively low.”
The rapid vertical integration of the food industry has also taken a toll on the quality of food, and its price.
America’s largest meat producer, Cargill Meat Solutions, made $134 billion in 2021 while the fifth largest meat producer, Smithfield Foods, made $27 billion that same year.
These massive companies can afford to drive prices down with industrial farming. Many large farms run on factories where hundreds of employees specialize in a specific task - substantially outproducing any averaged size farm.
The meat is packaged with pictures of beautiful green pastures and red silos on the front, giving the false impression that the entire process was organic and humane.
Local farming can help
The struggle between price and quality is hard to combat. Essentially, there are different markets for daily food consumption based on what a person can afford.
Local farmers markets generally have better quality food than the average supermarket. Food is fresh, organic and harvested in smaller, healthier processes. But it is also more expensive.
Many people who can afford it are willing to pay for what they know is healthy, humanely grown, fresh food.
A significant part of the American population doesn’t have options when it comes to the food they can afford to buy and are stuck with the lower quality, high fat, over-processed foods that fill a bulk of the grocery stores.
But then there are people who do not care or are just naive about what they are consuming.
A 2016 Pew Research Center study concluded that 58% of Americans admit they could eat healthier on a daily basis.
The good news is that at least those 58% recognize to some degree that they are not making an effort and could eat healthier.
On the other hand, it is unfortunate that they cannot or will not change their eating habits.
Obviously a big factor is price.
It is important to keep in mind, the price the average consumer gets in a supermarket is ramped up because it has to be shipped, packaged, and delivered, oftentimes from very far away.
At least when buying locally, the price paid for is due to its quality and not its logistics.
Jeremy Storey founded 15-acre Storey Farms in 2014 in Johns Island, South Carolina.
Being a small farm owner, Storey sometimes does not have the man power that larger farms do, so some of the normal processes are done elsewhere, like slaughtering.
"We use two different processors. A USDA processor called Bloomsburg Packing helps us with our pigs. And we use another poultry processor out in Atlanta," Storey said.
He admits that if he could do everything on his own farm he would.
"I would do everything here if I could. And we actually just got this two acre parcel here rezoned. So in that rezoning, we have a processing facility that we're going to build. So hopefully, we can transition into doing it all on the site here."
Although many small farm owners wish they could compete with bigger farms, Storey
sees it differently.
“I think a lot of small farms really resent big farms,” he said. “There's a place in the market for everyone. I think a lot of farmers would disagree with me on this, but I think large farms are very necessary. I'm not necessarily against them.”
But he does see a great benefit to consumers with his smaller production.
“Having said that, I do take pride in raising animals in a more humane way,” Storey added, noting the healthier the animal, the better the meat.
While smaller farms are at a disadvantage in terms of pricing, their customers are often met face to face, and they can be certain where the food is coming from.
Nelson agrees that one way to avoid the nutritional hazards of industrial farming is to buy from local markets like Storey's, because you know it's fresh and grown locally.
“Farmers markets, obviously, are great. Any kind of local stuff, you can get,” Nelson said.
She added that smaller farms definitely tend to be better.
“And, you know, you look for freshness, you don't want to eat anything that you can't pronounce,” said Nelson. “If you don't know what it is, and it's on an ingredient label, then do you think your body knows how to digest it?”