Americans have a love-love relationship with food—we love making it, eating it, and taking pictures of it. But America’s cozy relationship with food is complicated—nearly 72% of the population struggles with being overweight, the average American eats 3,600 calories a day, and 1 in 3 Americans are at risk for nutrient deficiencies.

Why? It’s all because of something called the “Western Diet” AKA the “American Diet.”

What is the Western Diet?

Nearly 60% of the Western Diet is made up of cheap, energy-dense, high-calorie foods. You know the kind: white bread, snacks that leave orange dust on your fingers, fast food with names like “Burgerrito.” The kinds of foods that may fill you up, but don’t deliver on nutrients and leave you feeling hungry again before too long. In the end, you eat lots of empty calories and saturated fats, without getting sufficient amounts of nutrients.

Let’s get into the Western Diet and how it affects us.

You gonna eat that?

(If you’re on the Western diet, the answer is probably “Yes.”)

On average, we consume more calories than most people need to maintain their weight, and the typical Western diet exceeds the 2015–2020 USDA guidelines for intake of added sugar, trans fats, and saturated fats. While USDA guidelines no longer recommend a total daily limit on fat intake overall, they set a recommended limit on the amount of “bad” fats, such as saturated fat, to less than 10% of daily calories.

The Western diet is also full of beloved carbs. Over-consuming empty carbohydrates, like those found in many nutrient-poor foods, leads to higher spikes in blood sugar. Over time, those spikes can increase insulin resistance and spur the development of both obesity and diabetes. As of 2017, over 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes.

From 2013–2016, about 1 in 3 adults in the US ate fast food on any given day. So it’s no wonder that Americans typically consume too many added sugars and saturated fats, and simultaneously too few servings of fruits and veggies, fiber, and so-called “good” fats like omega-3s. Woof.

What’s missing here?

(As for what we eat too little of, there’s plenty of that too.)


In general, we consume too few plants and plant-based foods (no, bread doesn’t count), with the average American adult eating fewer than the recommended 5–7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day a day. This has been shown to contribute to widespread deficiencies of vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and other nutrients like potassium, folate, calcium, magnesium, and iron.

Most of us aren’t getting enough fiber; the average American gets only about half the recommended amount each day. Fiber affects your gut microbiome—i.e., the community of microorganisms living in your digestive system—and imbalances in the gut microbiome have been tied to increased incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), diabetes, and colorectal cancer, among other conditions. Why else is fiber important? Well, higher fiber consumption may be associated with decreased risk of heart disease and reduced weight gain.

And remember the so-called “good” fats we mentioned earlier? Americans aren’t getting enough of those either—surprise! (not really) The USDA recommends that people eat more fatty fish and liquid oils, which are rich in omega-3 and other unsaturated fats.

There’s one more thing the Western diet is lacking: exercise. Eating all those excess calories might not be quite as bad for us if we didn’t skimp on the physical activity. Up to 33% of us can be classified as sedentary (BRB, checking to see if we still have that gym membership). Few Americans meet the CDC’s recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous, exercise a week.

 

A day in the life.

(Western Diet in the wild.)

It can be hard to compare diets, after all, diets vary over days, weeks, and the course of our lives. We might try fads like dietary supplements, the keto diet, eating only “green and white” foods, or we get into a pattern of quick and easy fast food. For today, we’re going to take a look at a few menus that are typical for the Western diet.

Note that the FDA has set out a comprehensive set of guidelines for daily values, so we’ll use that to benchmark a “healthy” diet for this exercise.

First let’s look at “readymade foods.” We’re talking donuts, frozen meals, that kind of stuff.

Sample menu “readymade foods”

Breakfast

Two apple cider donuts, one coffee with sugar and 1% milk

Lunch

One cheeseburger, one medium fries, one bottle of soda

Dinner

One quarter of a 12” frozen pizza

Dessert/Snack

One cup of ice cream

Nutrition facts for “readymade foods”

Nutrient

Quantity

% Daily Value

Calories

2300 kcal

115%

Protein

67g

141%

Total fat

105g

161%

Saturated fat

40g

200%

Cholesterol

176mg

59%

Total carbohydrate

278g

93%

Dietary fiber

14g

57%

Sugars

110g

**

Calcium

754mg

58%

Iron

9mg

51%

Potassium

439mg

9%

Sodium

3775mg

157%

Vitamin C

11mg

12%

*Guideline other than FDA Daily Values used. See appendix.

**No guidelines for total sugars are established, although new FDA labeling guidelines requires labeling of “added sugars.”

You can see that these low-cost, readymade foods typically have a disproportionately high amount of sodium. About 70% of the sodium we consume comes from "readymade" and restaurant foods. These foods are also loaded with sugar — often over the recommended daily intake for sugar. Many of these foods contain nearly twice the FDA’s recommended max intake of saturated fats, and they lack nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamin C. Over time, these nutrient imbalances increase the risk of certain diseases, like heart disease from high saturated fats and cholesterol, or osteoporosis from inadequate calcium and Vitamin D. So… This menu isn’t exactly ideal.

Now let’s look at something a menu that’s full of “kinda healthy foods”—a family sedan of diets if you will.

Sample menu “kinda healthy foods”

Breakfast

One serving of cereal with one cup of 2% milk, one cup of orange juice

Lunch

One turkey sandwich on wheat bread, one bag of whole wheat chips

Dinner

One serving pasta with shrimp, two pieces of garlic bread

Dessert/Snack

One candy bar

Nutrition facts for “kinda healthy foods”

Nutrient

Quantity

% Daily Value

Calories

2015 kcal

101%

Protein

84g

176%

Total fat

68g

104%

Saturated fat

24g

118%

Cholesterol

231mg

77%

Total carbohydrate

273g

91%

Dietary fiber

25g

99%

Sugars

62g

**

Calcium

1306mg

100%

Iron

26mg

145%

Potassium

1014mg

60%

Sodium

1434mg

60%

Vitamin C

120mg

133%

*Guideline other than FDA Daily Values used. See appendix.

**No guidelines for sugars are established, although new FDA labeling guidelines requires labeling of “added sugars”.

This was actually one of the most well-rounded diets we studied, even with a candy bar (woohoo!). It incorporates a balance of food groups, reaches (or surpasses) daily recommended values for key nutrients, and remains fairly low in cholesterol and sodium. However, there are a few deficiencies that could lead to long-term problems. And this diet still exceeds recommended levels for added sugar.

“But what if I eat only organic, home-cooked meals?” you cry, clinging to a basket of cauliflower. If you’re one of the lucky few who have resources to eat well on a regular basis, good on you! But guess what? You may still be out of line with recommended Daily Values. Let’s take a look at a “healthy and fit” menu.

Sample menu “healthy and fit foods”

Breakfast

One serving of cauliflower kale frittata, one bottle of blended fruit juice

Lunch

One arugula and goat cheese salad, one chicken curry

wrap

Dinner

One serving grilled salmon, one serving quinoa pilaf, one glass of red wine

Dessert/Snack

One granola bar

Nutrition facts for “healthy and fit”

Nutrient

Quantity

% Daily Value

Calories

2300 kcal

115%

Protein

67g

141%

Total fat

105g

161%

Saturated fat

22g

110%

Cholesterol

176mg

59%

Total carbohydrate

278g

93%

Dietary fiber

14g

57%

Sugars

63g

**%

Calcium

754mg

58%

Iron

9mg

51%

Potassium

2,538mg

54%

Sodium

3775mg

157%

Vitamin C

230mg

256%

*Guideline other than FDA Daily Values used. See appendix.

**No guidelines for sugars are established, although new FDA labeling guidelines requires labeling of “added sugars”.

As you can see there are a lot of good points here—lots of vitamin C, low carb, and low cholesterol. But this menu still isn’t meeting the recommended daily value of calcium, potassium, or iron. It’s also still surprisingly high in sodium, total fat, and protein.

Even with a “healthy” diet, you may still be getting too many calories and too few nutrients.

The cost of healthy living.

“Healthy and fit” diets also tend to be more expensive, making them cost-prohibitive for many. While the health issues of the Western diet affect people across many social groups, people from low- and middle-income communities are disproportionately affected by both malnutrition and obesity-related issues such as diabetes and heart disease. It’s what the World Health Organization refers to as the “double burden of malnutrition.”

There are a few things causing this. First, less nutritious foods are less expensive than nutrition-rich foods. Research has found that switching to a healthier diet costs $1.50 more per person, per day, than an unhealthy diet. And that adds up — it’s an extra $550 per year, per person ($2,200 for a family of four). For many people, higher food costs and inconsistent cash flow can lead to a cycle of food restriction and then binging nutritionally poor foods. The Western diet is exacerbated among low-income people, who are more likely to lack access to healthy food options and often struggle with obesity and nutrient deficiencies.

Steady access to healthier foods in “food deserts” is another piece of the puzzle. Multiple studies have found that people living in low-income urban and rural areas have access to fewer grocery stores, and have to travel farther to a grocery store, creating “food deserts,” or areas that lack access to adequate nutrition. For more about hunger and food insecurity, check out our blog.

All of this is to say, a balanced diet isn’t easy to come by.

There’s some good(ish) news!

In the past few years, more and more public education and awareness programs have attempted to boost knowledge about eating and nutrition. Meanwhile, programs geared toward low-income communities have sought to increase access to affordable and more nutritious foods in those food deserts we mentioned earlier.

Overall, Americans are starting to make healthier food choices and consume fewer calories. Americans are also reporting increased physical activity, with more than half of us saying that we exercise the recommended weekly amount. And there are a lot of people working hard to increase availability of nutrient-rich foods, and restrict nutrient-poor ones.

Soylent aims to help. That’s why we make meal replacement shakes and meal replacement powders that offer 20g of plant-based protein, 36 essential nutrients, omega-3s, and 0g of trans fat per serving.* We also have Soylent Bridge—an in-between meal and snack alternative, designed to fill you up without a bunch of empty calories. It’s a little something that can help turn our Western diet problem into something we can all feel better about.

It’s one piece of the puzzle, but we know there’s still more to do! That’s why we help to provide complete nutrition and support for food banks, food rescue organizations, homelessness advocacy groups, international hunger relief, and disaster relief. To date, we have donated more than 1.6 million meals (and counting!), through a combination of product and financial support. Read more about our efforts to combat hunger and food insecurity with #SoylentForGood.

Together we can change the definition of “the Western Diet” and bring better nutrition to everyone.


Other Resources:

How Much Cholesterol Should I Be Having Each Day to Be Healthy?

https://www.healthline.com/health/high-cholesterol/rda#guidelines

The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good

2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf

What’s on your table? How America’s diet has changed over the decades.

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/13/whats-on-your-table-how-americas-diet-has-changed-over-the-decades/


From taxing unhealthy food choices to lifestyle change programs folks can make in their day-to-day.

Appendix:

How we determined a “healthy diet”

To determine how healthy the diets were in the sample menus, we needed to compare their nutritional value to some sort of baseline healthy diet, based on current USDA dietary guidelines for Daily values (DV).

For nutrients where there was no DV listed, we used the following guidelines:

Here are the daily values of each nutrient:

Nutrient

DV or other value

Calories

2000 kcal

Protein*

47.52g

Total fat

65g

Saturated fat

20g

Cholesterol

300mg

Total carbohydrate

300g

Dietary fiber

25g

Sugars

50g

Calcium

1300mg

Iron

18mg

Potassium

4700mg

Sodium

2400mg

Vitamin C

90mg

<10% of calories from added sugars. Data includes total sugars, including added sugars.

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