Monday, July 1, 2013

Part 1: What About the Standard American Diet?

The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) or Westernized Diet has changed throughout the years. To be as relevant as possible, I will only speak on the present-day S.A.D. that is governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (Although, I may post in the future about how much the USDA guidelines have changed over the years!)

In 2011, the USDA developed a tool to help educate the American public on daily food recommendations: MyPlate. Below is a diagram of the daily food plan for an adult (18 years and older) eating 2,000 calories per day (this amount was chosen because it is the same number of calories per day that nutrition labels report percentages of daily value on).

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Summary of Diet Recommendations:
The USDA recommends 6 oz (3/4 cup) of grains per day, with the aim of getting at least 3 oz (3/8 cup) from whole grains. They also recommend 2 1/2 and 2 cups of vegetables and fruit, respectively, and request that the fruit group come mainly from food rather than juices. They recommend 3 cups of dairy per day, especially fat-free or low-fat varieties. For the protein group, they recommend 5.5 oz (almost 3/4 cup) per day, and encourage seafood twice a week, a variety of protein sources including plant sources, and to keep meat and poultry portions small and lean. They also recommend no more than 6 tsp (2 Tbsp) of oil per day, no more than 260 calories per day from solid fats and added sugars, and intake less than 2300 mg of sodium per day. Finally, they recommend getting at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week.

What's Good?
I'm happy they recommend whole grains, vegetables and fruit. I'm also pleased to see that they include plant-based sources of protein in the Protein group, like beans, peas, nuts, and seeds. (Note that many vegetables and fruits also provide ample amounts of protein.) I like that they recommend limiting the consumption of oil to just 2 Tbsp a day, though I would love it if they recommended NO oil because it's really not a healthy food - oil is 100% fat with zero nutritional content (empty calories as they say).

Fun Fact about Olive Oil
Eating 2 Tbsp of olive oil per day
produces 24 lbs of body fat per year!

I absolutely love how they say, "vary your veggies." This is something that every person should strive for, including myself.

What's Bad?
My first observation? Of all the food groups, dairy is recommended in the largest quantity. In other words, if these daily recommendations were by percentage, it would look like this:

Grains - 8%
Vegetables - 28%
Fruits - 22%
Dairy - 34%
Protein - 8%

As I have previously written about, dairy is a very poor source of calcium because dairy contains very concentrated amounts of animal protein (because animal's milk is meant for the growing baby animal). And what does the consumption of animal protein do to the human body? It increases the acid load on the body, which your body then leeches calcium from your OWN bones in an attempt to neutralize the situation. The result in your body is weakened bone health and an increased likelihood of developing osteoporosis.

The USDA is also recommending much more protein per day than what is actually needed. The World Health Organization recommends that protein comprise 5% of your daily caloric intake. Based on a 2,000 calorie per day example week's menu plan, you can see that the USDA is recommending that protein comprise 20% of your daily caloric intake, most of which comes from animal food sources (meat and dairy). Much more than needed. The over consumption of protein (extremely likely to happen if you consume lots of dairy and meat) can cause several other health conditions, such as cancer and heart disease.

I also find it hazardous that they only recommend 2.5 hours of [moderate] physical activity per week. I placed moderate in brackets because the USDA differentiates between moderate and vigorous physical activity, but the 2.5 hour recommendation is for moderate exercise. If you were to engage in vigorous physical activity, you only need to exercise for about 1.25 hours per week, according to the USDA.

By their definition, brisk walking and general gardening count toward the moderate physical activity requirement. Yes, these activities are better than sitting on the couch all day and night, but 2.5 hours a week of walking is not going to do much good if that's as intense as you get. Most people don't even get 2.5 hours of actual exercise (and by exercise, I mean working out and maintaining your target heart rate -- you know you're in it when you're just out of breath and not desiring to carry on a conversation anymore). I would love to see the USDA recommend at least 5 hours per week of exercise within your target heart rate. It doesn't mean people would follow that recommendation, but what good is a health recommendation if it doesn't lead to improved health?

Bottom Line:
The S.A.D. seems to be written to please everybody: the American-gluttonous palate, the dairy and livestock farmers they advocate for, and the fad dieters. It's pretty vague, has a mixture of units (cups vs. ounces - not so easy to apply in life), and off base in its daily recommendations. It's pretty SAD indeed that a diet plan intended for everyone in America is not healthy for anyone in America.

Next -- Part 2: What About the Atkins Diet?
Introduction for the 10-Part Series

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