The Standard American Diet: 9 Unhealthy Foods that are Ruining your Health

Good nutrition is an important part of leading a healthy lifestyle. Combined with physical activity, your diet can help you to reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of chronic diseases (like heart disease and cancer), and promote your overall health.

In fact, many experts agree that true health starts with your diet. For some reason many of us have the idea that we can “exercise away” our bad food choices. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can be harmful for your overall health. I know I’m guilty of this idea!!

Impact of nutrition on health.

Unhealthy foods have definitely contributed to the obesity epidemic in the United States. About one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese. And those numbers continue to grow!

Even for people at a healthy weight, a poor diet is associated with major health risks that can cause illness and even death. These include heart disease (cardiovascular disease), hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer. 

By making smart food choices, you can help protect yourself from these health problems.

the standard american diet

Our food is killing us.

Without a doubt, improving the standard american diet would make the biggest impact on our health care.

Let’s face it, Americans eat way too many processed foods and fast food. More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth are overweight or obese, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report.

For the past 30 years, we’ve increased our intake of processed, unhealthy foods while getting little to no exercise and not nearly enough sleep.

In fact, about half of American adults have one or more diet-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, the report states.

More and more evidence shows that the types of food we eat have a worsening effect on our gut health and immune system, which play major roles in protecting our overall health. 

Researchers say that changing the way we eat could help prevent us from getting sick sooner — or later — in life.

My journey with food choices

The way I grocery shop, cook, and eat has changed drastically in the past 15 years. I went from a college kid eating frozen pizzas, ramen, and doritos everyday to realizing I should maybe take my health a little more seriously when I got in physical therapy school in my mid-20s.

From there, I’ve learned so many easy hacks for adding nutrient dense foods to my diet. My favorites include smoothies, soups, salads, and throwing an “omega” mix on my snacks. For me, it’s become an easy habit to make the better health choice- most of the time. But I’ve also learned it’s about balance and moderation so that I don’t get stuck in a self-sabotaging guilt trip when I do indulge.

Now, when I spend time with people outside of my own immediate family. Sometimes the food choices they make on a regular basis blow my mind. I know they are a few easy decisions away from better choices. Yet, many of us grew up eating certain foods and simply continued the trend without a second thought.

I get it, I was that person for 25 years of my life. And there’s no reason to feel ashamed. But it is a great reason to feel motivated to started making small sustainable changes. A big part of that to start is being aware of some of these food choices! So here’s a list of 9 to get your started. I hope it inspires you rather than making you feel guilty (because it shouldn’t!).

9 Unhealthy foods that are ruining your health.

Snack mixes.

Lots of trail mixes and other sweet-salty-crunchy concoctions may be handy snacks, but be careful that you’re not mindlessly munching on not-so-healthy versions. 

Many packaged varieties come filled with sugary candies and heavily seasoned crunchy bits. Some also contain highly processed sweeteners and partially hydrogenated oils.

Instead, try making some of your own mixes with flavor free nuts, raisins, and dark chocolate chunks. Yum!

Processed ‘low-fat’ and ‘fat-free’ foods.

The “war” on saturated fat could be considered one of the most misguided decisions in the history of nutrition.

It was based on weak evidence, which has now been completely debunked.

When this discussion started, processed food manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and started removing the fat from foods.

But there’s a huge problem. Food doesn’t taste good when the fat has been removed. That’s why they added a lot of sugar to compensate.

Saturated fat is harmless, but added sugar is incredibly harmful when consumed in excess.

The words “low fat” or “fat free” on packaging usually means that it’s a highly processed product that’s loaded with sugar.

So do me favor and skip the fat free!!

standard american diet

French fries.

French Fries are the most delicious snack because the crunchiness of these potatoes is superb. But apart from that, you need to know that commercial fries are a tasty food. But they are also unhealthy food because of the way they are cooked in processed oils.

Plus, potatoes are basically pure starch (meaning it is quickly processed into rapidly absorbed sugar in the body). Some argue this is the most unhealthy food of them all.

Try ditching the french fries for fruits and vegetables. If you have a potato craving, try making them at home in the oven with avocado oil.

Diet drinks.

Calorie-free beverages like soda, fruit drinks, and teas may help reduce your calorie count but may still not be worth gulping.

Not only are you slurping chemical replacements for sugar, but also research has linked these artificial sweeteners to increased cravings for other high-sugar (and high-calorie) foods.

I almost never drink anything outside of water or tea for this reason. There’s just NO benefit to drinking soda- diet or not.

“Whole wheat” products that aren’t really made from whole wheat.

When whole grains have been pulverized into very fine flour, did you know it causes them to raise blood sugar just as fast as their refined grains counterparts?

In fact, whole wheat bread can have a similar glycemic index as white bread.

Around 1960, scientists modified the genes in wheat to increase the yield. Modern wheat is less nutritious and has some properties that make it much worse for people who have a gluten intolerance.

There are also studies showing that modern wheat may cause inflammation and increased cholesterol levels, at least when compared to the older varieties.

Wheat may have been a relatively healthy grain back in the day, but the stuff most people are eating today should be consumed with caution.

Unfortunately, the label “whole wheat” means pretty much nothing nowadays!

standard american diet


Burgers are an extremely yummy food but it is can also be an unhealthy food.

This is mostly due to the things that people load onto their burgers. A big fluffy bun, sugary sauces (aka ketchup) and no veggies makes for an unbalanced meal.

Our family combats this by doing bunless or half-bun burgers that we load to the brim with veggies- the more the better! Our favorite staples are avocado, tomatoe, red onion, fried mushrooms, lettuce, and smoked Tabasco. Yum! It comes veggies with a side of burger!

Low-calorie yogurts.

The lowest-calorie option isn’t always the healthiest. When it comes to junk food in disguise in the standard american diet, yogurt may be one of the worst offenders. 

Some ultra-low-cal yogurts cut back on sugar and fat but replace them with artificial sweeteners and thickeners. Check the ingredient list on your favorite brand.

Go for sugar free, full fat yogurt to get all the benefits of yogurt without the chemical mash-up.


Butter was labeled a bad food choice in the past because of its high saturated fat content.

Various health experts started promoting margarine instead.

Back in the day, margarine used to be high in trans fats. These days, it has fewer trans fats than before, but it’s still loaded with refined vegetable oils.

Not surprisingly, the Framingham Heart Study showed that people who replace butter with margarine are actually more likely to die from heart disease.

If you want to improve your health, try to eat real butter (preferably grass fed), and avoid margarine with trans fat. Trans-fat-free margarine has become more available in recent years.

Always read nutrition facts carefully and limit products that contain trans fat.

Recommending trans fat-laden margarine instead of natural butter may be considered some of the worst nutrition advice in history.

standard american diet

Sugary foods.

Sugary foods are some of the most dangerous to our diet.  Anyone with a sweet tooth knows just how addicting processed sugary foods can be.

Sugar is not a problem in and of itself, in fact we need it for basic body functions! But the problem is the high amounts it now consumed at in a typical American diet. In fact, many people don’t realize how many of their favorite food items have sugar hiding in them! Cereal, sauces, condiments… the list goes on.

When you consume more sugar (especially when it isn’t accompanied with any vitamins or nutrients) than you body needs, it puts your body in a state of imbalance. The sugar requires the pancreas to work overtime to create insulin, leading to burnout and decreased sensitivity. This bodily function requires the body to store that extra sugar in the body as fat.

Related read: How to Stop Eating Junk Food: Practical Tips

Tips for combining good nutrition and physical activity.

For youth and adults engaging in physical activity and sports, healthy eating is essential for optimizing performance. Combining good nutrition with physical activity can lead to a healthier lifestyle.

Maximize with nutrient-packed foods.

Give your body the nutrients it needs by eating a variety of nutrient-packed food, including whole grains (the un-pulverized kind), lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and full fat dairy. Eat less food high in processed fats, added sugars, and sodium (salt).

Mix it up with plant protein foods.

Protein is essential. But the average American gets plenty of protein via meat. Try to mix it up with meatless days while focusing on a plant based diet! Variety is great! Choose beans and peas (kidney, pinto, black, or white beans; split peas; chickpeas; hummus), organic soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers), and unsalted nuts and seeds.

Vary your fruits and vegetables.

Get the nutrients your body needs by eating a variety of colors, in various ways. Try blue, red, or black berries; red and yellow peppers; and dark greens like spinach and kale. Choose fresh, frozen, low-sodium canned, dried, or 100% juice options. 2020 dietary guidelines recommend at least 3 servings of fruits and vegetables each day at a minimum.

Don’t forget dairy.

Foods like full fat (preferably organic) milk, cheese, yogurt, and fortified soy beverages (soymilk) help to build and maintain a healthy diet needed for everyday activities.

Awareness the the key to making better food choices.

Most of us don’t put a lot of thought into what chemical or additives may be lurking in our staple foods.

I hope this article gave you a moment to pause. I’m not suggesting you go cold turkey on all your favorite foods (although if you do- more power to you!).

Here’s what I do challenge you to do:

  • Read your food labels.
  • Think of ways to add more fruits and vegetables to your staple dishes- it’s really SO easy!
  • Mix up your weekly meals to include a variety of nutrition.
  • Pay attention to your eating patterns!
  • When you want one of the 9 foods we discussed- do so in moderation, but also enjoy it!

Related read: 10 Simple Healthy Food Alternatives

What can you do this week to make your eating habits a little better? Let’s discuss it! I’d love to hear!

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