One More Reason the Standard American Diet Makes Us Fat

By Marsha Hudnall
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I can't resist pictures like these. They seem an exaggeration of the Standard American Diet, but I fear they're not.

There are several reasons nutritionists call the standard American diet (SAD) just that — sad.  For one, it leaves many of us starving for nutrients that keep us healthy and ward off chronic disease.  But more obvious, at least on the outside, is that it’s at the core of why so many of us struggle with weight.

Indeed, people nationwide, and worldwide, seem to be struggling harder than ever to maintain a healthy weight.  No longer does the standard American weight loss diet — which is generally about ignoring our body’s cues for hunger and satiety, a decidedly unpleasant thing to do — hold promise for many of us; we’ve been there, done that too many times.  Nor can most of us exercise at an intensity and with a frequency only the super-committed (aka Biggest Loser stars) can adhere to (at least while they’re on tv).  And very sadly, even undergoing weight loss surgery as a last desperate attempt often fails, too, as many do regain the weight lost.

It’s Not about Calories In vs. Calories Out

As science continues to reveal the intricacies of weight gain and loss, it’s adding support for what many who’ve worked in the trenches with people who struggle with weight have long known:  the struggle goes beyond mere calories in vs. calories out.   Instead, it’s pointing to what we eat as a key factor in why that equation, long held to be the last word in why someone is fat, doesn’t seem to work for all of us.   An equation, by the way, that has caused distress for millions as they’ve wondered what’s wrong with them that they can’t follow this seemingly-simple “rule.”

The latest research on mice, as reported in Science Daily on Monday, tells us that diets high in fat and sugar actually switch on fat-storing genes, creating a “double-whammy” effect.  Not only do they contribute more calories but high-fat, high-sugar foods switch on a receptor that causes our bodies to hold on to more fat than they normally would. Hence, with the prolonged exposure to these types of foods that the SAD represents, people are set up for weight gain (theoretically at least — researchers still need to examine if this works similarly in humans but there’s plenty to suggest it does as it is probably one more evolutionary adaptation that allowed the human race to survive during times of famine).

Does It Really Come Down to Popping Pills?

The distressing news?  At least as reported in Science Daily, there was mention that high-fat, high-sugar diets should be “avoided.”  Such a negative way to put it.  I’m sure the talented writers at Science Daily could come up with a way to say the same thing in a more inspiring way — if they understood the psychology surrounding eating choices.  With so much power in their hands, the media sadly (that word again) don’t get it.

But even more negative was the comment that the research “provides a new drug target for developing therapies for preventing obesity and helping obese people slim down.”

Drugs???  Why can’t we just eat better?  I know — it takes a village.  Or in this case a country.

Do you understand what “eating better” means?  So many of us think it’s about the diet definition.

17 Responses (Add Yours)

  • Eloquently written…yes, it takes personal responsibility, but it also requires corporate responsibility.

  • Marsha says:

    You’re absolutely right, Karen. I think awareness must precede responsibility, however. While it may sound naive, I think we’re really just starting to wake up in this country to what our food choices are doing to many of us. It’s complicated by the fact that there is so much misinformation about healthy eating out there. And corporations fight the battle of giving people what they want. But I do think the tide is slowly turning.

  • I hope so…and I agree about awareness coming first :-) I am sure there will always be people who are “aware” but will still want to eat SAD, and as long as there are people like that, “big food” will be happy to give them what they want.
    .-= KCLAnderson (Karen)’s last blog post..Defining Moments =-.

  • It really is SAD. Unfortunately, for most people, I think convenience comes before health. Eating a SAD is faster, takes less effort, and–frankly–tastes better to taste buds dulled by salt, sugar, and fat. What it comes down to is really wanting to make a change, not feeling obligated.
    .-= Tracey @ I’m Not Superhuman’s last blog post..To Stretch Or Not To Stretch? =-.

  • Marsha says:

    That’s definitely true, Tracey. Feeling obligated to adopt healthy lifestyles behaviors generally doesn’t make us want to do it. It’s a big problem for many as weight has wrongly become a moral issue in this country.

  • Cindy says:

    Mindful eating has become my focus. It isn’t easy with bad choices so nicely packaged for convenience, but it does come down to choices. It would be nice if the food industry had our best interest in mind for health but money is the bottom line for them. On the other hand, no one has ever forced me to eat those foods. I do it willingly to save time and money without considering the cost to my health. Awareness and mindful eating along with self-education and discipline are things I have to do all on my own, knowing more is working against me than for me. It’s hard but so is being overweight.
    .-= Cindy’s last blog post..Daily Disciplines =-.

  • Cindy says:

    I was shopping the perimeter of the market the other day and realized again just how frustrating it is to find healthy choices down isles 2 – 10.

  • Julie Trevor says:

    Actually, I like that the produce is on one side, meats usually against the back wall and frozen foods & dairy on the opposite side of the store. It makes it easier for me to avoid the contents of aisles 2-10 – alluring fats and sugars. I admit though I sometimes have to buy a bag of Wise butter flavored popcorn; it’s just the right amount of chemicals.

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by ichange: One More Reason the Standard American Diet Makes Us Fat http://bit.ly/4Gxm9u

  • Gina says:

    A nice article – but I thought that the fact that high-sugar, high-fat diets predisposed humans to weight gain had been common knowledge for years. I understand that this type of diet and the resulting weight gain is called “metabolic sydrome”, in which people gain more weight than their calorie intake would indicate. This type of diet can also predispose people to diabetes.

  • Gina says:

    Sorry – I meant to type “metabolic syndrome”.

  • Marsha says:

    Gina — That’s what I meant when I said people who’ve worked in the trenches have known this for a while. And while the general public may have heard that, I’m not sure it’s really common knowledge, or commonly understood. People still hang on to the idea that achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is about counting calories. I see these conversations on Twitter and other blogs all the time. And it’s at the basis of some of the most popular diets. Calorie counts being required on menus also points to that. If it was generally understood that it’s not just about calories, the menus would go beyond just listing calories.

  • Gina says:

    Marsha – I take your point. I guess the only reason I am aware of Metabolic Syndrome etc is that I take an interest in such things, and hang around on fitness-oriented sites where members talk about “clean” diets rather than calorie counting.

  • Laura says:

    I am a chef, certified personal trainer and a mom. I have discovered that the mindset regarding eating is the most important thing, not necessarily the diet methods that don’t fit you. I discovered this when trying to get my toddler to eat and wrote a book about it – Diet Secrets of A Toddler, By Laura Andolini. It is on my website if you are interested. http://www.cooking-for-fitness.com , or amazon.com. I hope you enjoy it!
    .-= Laura’s last blog post..Nov 22, Diet Secrets of A Toddler =-.

  • Marsha says:

    Gina — Conversations about and converts to “clean” eating are definitely becoming more common, and that’s great news for our health. Lest someone think that smacks of deprivation, it actually changes our taste preferences and really takes away cravings so that we don’t feel deprived at all. We just don’t want some of the things we formerly liked/craved, and our bodies are so much more in balance that our hunger is much better managed and we just feel so much better overall.

    We’re actually having a Food as Medicine retreat at Green Mountain (Jan 6-9, 2010), to give women the opportunity to immerse themselves in this approach, then will be building the approach into our regular program. We’ll keep our focus on helping women learn to eat the foods they love and move away from the diet mentality, but are excited to integrate this new approach to help women improve their health. That’s really what we’ve been about all along at Green Mountain — health.

    Laura — We love the analogy of the toddler for normal eating (is that the right word — analogy? I always get confused…). We’ve used it since the 80s in our mindful eating classes at Green Mountain. So completely agree about your statement that mindset is so important and working on that can be much more effective than trying to follow “diet methods that don’t fit you.”

    Our Food as Medicine approach is all about finding a way of eating that does fit you, as an individual. That makes eating in that way second nature. It’s not something you have to spend a lot of time thinking about. And as it’s a way that makes you feel great, it’s a marker for health (understatement).

    Sorry if this comment turned into a commercial, but I’m really immersed in getting up to speed about using food as medicine right now, and have become pretty passionate about it. I’m close to becoming the bore at the dinner party, I think. :)

  • I think that you made a very valid point – it isn’t just about calories in vs. calories out. You can eat a low-calorie diet and still have it be extremely unhealthy. There has to be much more focus on promoting a healthy, nutritionally-balanced diet as part of any weight loss program, not just calorie control, limiting carbs or limiting fats. Educating people about healthier food options, particularly easy and quick-to-prepare ones is key here. You’re doing an excellent job.

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