The traditional North American diet is comparable to a used car salesman. It will convince you that there is nothing wrong and no better option until you realize the mistake you’ve made and the consequences that follow it. My apologies to the salesman out there but you don’t have a good reputation. Although, we know there are a few good ones out there. The North American diet has similarities in that it convincingly promotes healthy eating with its 4 food groups. This type of diet may not be the end of the world for some individuals but can be devastating to others. So is this traditional diet as bad as a used car salesman? Let’s dig into the facts and find out.
The North American diet started in the 1940’s and gained popularity as it was highly promoted by the Canadian and American governments. The two major campaigns were Canada’s Food Guide and the USDA Food Guide, which are still alive today. Since, these campaigns were encouraged and funded by the government, people didn’t dare question the health claims and recommendations. People had the notion that if it came from the government, it had to be the most reliable information available, therefore they followed instructions. This belief is what has made it very difficult to change people’s dietary habits and behaviours. They still believe that those recommendations are what is healthy. In fact, these guides have barely changed from the 1942-1992 (that’s 50 years!) and have only started changing slightly from 2007-2016.
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but times have changed and it’s time for your diet to change as well. What is so bad about the traditional North American diet and why should we change it? Let me show you.
- Too many processed carbohydrates and sugars
They are convenient, easy to store and readily available. Items like bread, cereal, and granola bars have dominated our kitchen. These high processed carbohydrates have been staples in our diet for centuries due to their high recommendations in the food guides. People may not realize, but these types of carbohydrates are linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease. They may also be the source of an increase in gluten intolerances in today’s society. Furthermore, these refined carbohydrates have little nutritional value and are very calorie dense leading to an increased daily calorie intake. Since we do not move as much as we used to because of technology advancement and automation, this higher calorie intake leads to weight gain and eventually obesity.
- Vegetable and fruit intake far below recommendation
The current guide has done a much better job recommending 8-10 servings per day. However, if we actually look at the average North American plate, I’d be willing to bet we don’t come even close to those recommendations. Most people probably only consume 1-2 servings at dinner time. That’s it. Many people don’t like the taste of vegetables and this may be due to simply not eating enough of them. Let’s face it, when you tasted your first beer or coffee you probably thought it was disgusting, right? Yet, now you probably truly enjoy the taste and this is simply due to acquiring a taste after over consumption. We should be aiming to eating vegetables at each meal! Yes, even at breakfast! Weird eh?
- Too many calories late in the day
The bulk of calories in our diet is often consumed later in the day. The problem with this is that most people are a lot less active in the evenings. They get home from work and usually park themselves on the couch to watch TV or go on the computer. Since they aren’t burning much energy, the body will simply save those calories for times of energy needs. You guessed it, that means it’s storing them as fat cells.
- Little to no healthy fats
If you ask any baby boomer, chances are they think fats are bad. Now, that’s not their fault since that is what they were taught. Fats equal heart attacks and strokes, right? Wrong! The overconsumption of unhealthy fats such as trans fats is the culprit. The North American diet lacks a serious amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (healthy fats). Since we consume so many of one type of fat within our diet, it’s become unhealthy. Contrary to common belief, fats are not the enemy, they are essential for our body to function properly. We just need to level the playing field between unhealthy and healthy fats by introducing a variety of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
- Not enough protein consumption / nutritious food at breakfast
The staple breakfast for a Westerner is cereal. Cereal is a processed food with no quality protein or great nutrient value. It’s usually high in calories and sugar. This poor consumption of quality nutrients for breakfast leads to low energy levels throughout the day. A good quality source of protein in the morning will give you sustained energy and help fuel your muscles for physical activity. Furthermore, protein gives us the feeling of satiety which means you’ll have less hunger cravings. In general, most people don’t get enough nutrient dense foods at breakfast which we’ve all heard is the most important meal of the day!
- Fixed on the “ 3 meals per day” routine
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The three traditional meals we all eat. The problem with this eating pattern is that people don’t eat for long periods of time then binge eat during these three meals. This massive consumption of food puts a lot of stress on the digestive system as well as creating an overload of immediate energy which the body will not use. Since the body doesn’t need all those calories to sustain itself, it stores the rest as fat for later use. However, when later comes around, we repeat the cycle again with another big meal.
- Too much dairy, not enough water
For some reason, dairy was given its own category in our food guide while other protein sources like meats, fish and beans were all grouped together. Yet, millions of people cannot digest milk well (lactose intolerance). Meanwhile, the most important nutrient to humans, water, doesn’t even have recommendations! In general, North Americans do not drink nearly enough water to hydrate their body to function properly. The majority of your beverages should be water and not milk, juice, or pop! After all, we are the only mammals that drink another mammal’s milk. Don’t you find that odd?
As you can see, the North American diet can certainly use a makeover. The 7 reasons mentioned above were only the tip of the iceberg and only raised the problems, not the solutions. If you want to learn more information on how to fix your diet, stay tuned for the nutrition 101 series. These articles will follow up on the problems discussed in today’s article as well as give you some solutions!
Paul Bissonnette B. Kin, CEP, CSCS, FMSC, Pn1
- Berardi, J., & Andrews, R. (2015). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition Certification Manual (Second ed.). Precision Nutrition Inc.
- Canada Food Guide. (2007, February 5). Canada’s Food Guides from 1942 to 1992. Retrieved from Health Canada: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/context/fg_history-histoire_ga-eng.php#a1944
- Center for Nutrition. (2016, September 16). A brief history of USDA food guides. Retrieved from choose my plate: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/content/brief-history-usda-food-guides
- Gross, L., Li, L., Ford, E., & Liu, S. (2004). Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic. American Society of Clinical Nutrition(79), 774-779.
- McArdle, W., Katch, F., & Katch, V. (2010). Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance (7 ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.