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The Western Diet: Fast Food, Snack Food, American Food

Sep 26, 2019
Demi Powell
Core Spirit member since Sep 4, 2019
Reading time 10 min.

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, inadequate protein, blood-sugar spiking carbs, and unhealthy fats, all without getting sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals.

It’s SO hard to constantly count calories, nutrients and everything else in our food. And it’s also really hard to resist stuff that tastes good. So, most peopleconsume more calories than we need to maintain our weight. The typical Western diet far exceeds the 2015–2020 USDA guidelines for intake of sodium, quickly digested, high glycemic carbohydrates and added sugar and saturated fat.

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 few servings of fruits and veggies, fiber, and so-called “good” fats like omega-3s.

The Western diet is 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.

Then there’s the fats. USDA guidelines include recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids, such as alpha linolenic acid. And they set a limit on saturated fat from stuff like meat, eggs and even coconut oil, to less than 10% of daily calories. The USDA recommends that people eat more fatty fish and vegetable oils that are rich in omega-3 and other unsaturated fats.

And where’s the protein? Protein is essential for everything we do, and it helps to keep our carbohydrate intake down. But lean protein is at a premium, especially when consuming saturated fat-rich meat, dairy and even coconut oil. We’re supposed to get at least 50 grams of protein a day, if not more. Good luck getting that with a lot of plant based meals.

And lastly, your grandmother would be asking, “Where are all the vitamins and minerals?” Shouldn’t nutrient dense foods have a bunch of vitamins and minerals? The ‘whole foodization’ may be great for business, but now we often forget to think about essential nutrients. That’s why we include a consistent amount of all the nutrients you need, in every serving. So you don’t have to guess anymore.

And what’s missing here? PLANTS! In general, we consume too few plants and plant-based foods (no, bread doesn’t count). American adult eats fewer than the recommended 5–7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. This has resulted in 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 dietary 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. mbalances in the gut microbiome have been tied to increased incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), diabetes, and colorectal cancer, among other conditions. Higher fiber consumption is also associated with a healthy body weight, and decreased risk of heart disease.

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. ⅓ of Americans are classified as sedentary . Few Americans meet the CDC’s recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week.

So, what’s the solution?

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 typical menus 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”

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”

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”

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.

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Other Resources:

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


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


2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans


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


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


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:

Protein: The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 g for every pound a person weighs. Since the FDA’s 2,000 calorie diet is based on a 132-lb woman, we used that weight as our baseline. Guideline: 0.36 * 132 = 47.52 g of protein per day.

Sugar: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women eat a maximum of 25 g of sugar per day. Guideline: 25 g of sugar per day.

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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