Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

What’s Wrong with the American Diet?

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Americans have a national eating disorder that has been brewing for a long time..  In the early 1900’s when farming became more industrialized, we began to eat more than we needed. Food scarcity was one of the reasons that many “first generation immigrants” had left their native lands, e.g. the Irish due to the potato famine; therefore they found food in their new home much more abundant.

Meat and potatoes became the mainstay of the diets of immigrants, since meat was more plentiful in the early U.S. than in other areas of the world.  Meat was relatively cheap and especially succulent fatty meats were particularly popular.

In the 1920’s, convenience foods became abundant due to the new appliances (including refrigeration) appearing for the average consumer.  Canned goods became abundant as well as prepared foods like cereals.  Our “core” eating patterns became established which persist to this day: cereal for breakfast, eggs, bacon or toast, sandwiches or soup for lunch; and meat as the main focal point with potatoes and a vegetable on the side.

After the Depression and World Wars, food production became more mechanized and the food supply became even larger and larger.  Meat still predominated as it does to this day.  Nutrition became a science and with that more of a predominant influence on our diets. We began to live longer and chronic diseases became the main causes of death overtaking infectious diseases of the past. We became obsessed with trying to find the “magic” pill for health and longevity and diet books appeared on bestseller lists.

We are now at a point in our history that we have one of the most abundant food supplies in the world.  Our supermarket shelves are always well stocked and our restaurants serve supersize meals that easily offer us per meal at least 1000 calories, about half of our daily needs.  Food is the cheapest it has been for decades.   So how has our health status fared in this era of food abundance?

According to the latest USDA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 2005-2006), 35 percent of Americans are obese. In contrast, in 1971-74 (NHANES1) only 13% of Americans were obese. It ‘s predicted that if the current trends continue, 100% of U.S. adults will be overweight by 2030.

According to NHANES 2003-6, 12% of 2-5 year olds are obese; 17% of 6-11 years olds are obese, and 18% of 12-19 years olds are obese.  Contrast this with data from 1971-1974 (NHANES1), 5%, 4%, and 6% were obese in these age groups, respectively. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults. There are an estimated 23.6 million children and adults in the United States, who have diabetes. 5.7 million people may have pre-diabetes and are not aware that they have the disease.  If present trends continue, one in three Americans, and 1 in 2 minorities, born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime

Over 50 percent of U.S. adults have a blood cholesterol level over 200, which is medically classified as “borderline high”.  About 20 percent of U.S adults measure “high” cholesterol levels of 240 or higher, without a relatively high level of “good” cholesterol to protect them.  Statistics show that merely by living in the U.S, for example, you’re at greater risk of dying from heart disease than are the residents of at least sixteen other countries.

Cancer rates could further increase by 50% to 15 million new cases in the year 2020, according to the World Cancer Report, the most comprehensive global examination of the disease to date. However, the report also provides clear evidence that healthy lifestyles and public health action by governments and health practitioners could stem this trend, and prevent as many as one third of cancers worldwide.

So in this age of health care reform what can we do?  Most suggestions recommend changes in lifestyles (eating less, exercising more).  However, it will take more than this paltry advice to solve the eating disorder that contributes to our longevity, health and health care costs.


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