More is better, right? Sometimes, but not always—particularly when food is concerned. Much of our nation have ready access to a wide assortment of foods. Go to any supermarket, and you will find shelves upon shelves stocked with food items. At first glance, this would seem like a good thing. I can’t think of many people who would want to live in a country whose grocery shelves are bare. Nobody wants to be hungry. As a child, I went to bed hungry some nights, and it was not a good feeling.

Yes, scarcity of food is terrible. Moreover, going back in time in the United States, a poor diet used to be associated with undernutrition. Unfortunately, modern times in this country have seen the pendulum swing much too far in the other direction. Today, a poor diet indicates excess, especially excesses in calories, saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium. The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) truly is a sorrowful pattern of food consumption. It represents the types of foods and their associated nutrient compositions that many Americans eat

Source: Eating You Alive/Youtube

For instance, less than 1 in 10 adults eat enough fruits and vegetables. About 50 percent of young people and adults consume a sugary drink on any given day. In general, American diets are high in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. In addition, approximately 60 percent of the US diet comes from processed foods. 

So, why is all this bad? After all, don’t most people in this country eat this way? Yes, they do, and the overall health of our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers reflects this.

1. Obesity

In 2017-2018, the prevalence of obesity in this country was 42.4 percent. This increased from 30.5 percent in the year 2000.  Is this a problem? Considering that obesity increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancers, then it would seem as though it is a bit of an issue. In monetary terms, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States in 2008 was $147 BILLION. 

Obesity is primarily due to lifestyle. Physical inactivity can lead to obesity, as can the types and quantities of foods that are eaten. Eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting the intake of fat and processed foods can help lower the chance of becoming obese, as can eating slowly and consuming reasonable portion sizes. 

2. Cholesterol

Elevated levels of total cholesterol, high levels of LDL (“bad cholesterol”), and low levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”) can all increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This disease entity includes heart disease, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease (blockages of the arteries in the legs). LDL is considered “bad” because it deposits cholesterol in the walls of blood vessels, which is called plaque, narrowing these vessels and leading to disease. HDL is considered “good” because it helps carry cholesterol to your liver, where it can be removed from the body. 

Source: The Vegan Zombie/Youtube

What types of foods contribute to elevated cholesterol levels? In general, foods that contain high amounts of saturated fats can increase cholesterol levels. Examples include foods of animal origins, such as red meat, butter, and cheese. 

In addition to decreasing the consumption of foods high in saturated fats, increasing the intake of soluble fiber can also lower LDL cholesterol. Five to ten grams of soluble fiber daily can lower LDL. Foods such as oatmeal, beans, and apples contain soluble fiber. Dietary changes alone such as these can help to improve a person’s cholesterol profile, and they come without any side effects. 

One more important piece of information regarding fats is that there are healthy fats. These are unsaturated fats and can be found in foods such as avocados and nuts. Eating these foods in moderation can contribute to overall health.

3. Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

Blood pressure is simply a measure of the pressure exerted by flowing blood against the walls of a person’s arteries. If this pressure is consistently too high, it will make the artery walls less elastic and increase the risk of developing devastating conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease

Hypertension is often caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as not getting enough physical activity, excessive salt intake, being overweight, smoking, and not managing stress well. Therefore, improving your lifestyle can certainly help to lower blood pressure. An important note about excessive salt intake is that it does not typically come from the salt shaker. Approximately 70 percent of the sodium consumed in the United States comes from restaurants and processed foods. If you recall, about 60 percent of the American diet comes from processed foods

4. Diabetes

Many patients tell me that they have “sugar” in their blood. What they mean, of course, is that they have diabetes. The term “diabetes” is likely familiar to nearly everyone. The reason for this is that it is so pervasive among us. How pervasive? By the numbers: 37.3 million Americans have diabetes (1 in 10). Ninety-six million adults, more than 1 in 3, have prediabetes. If three people are standing in a room, one of them is on the path to diabetes. Moreover, as frightening as it sounds, people ages 10-19 are developing diabetes at an increasing rate. 

Source: LIVEKINDLY/Youtube

To be clear, there are several types of diabetes. The two most common are type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is due to a lack of insulin, and type 2 is due to a decrease in or resistance to insulin. Prediabetes implies early type 2 diabetes.

As far as the causes of type 2 diabetes—much of it comes down to lifestyle. Being overweight, physical inactivity, having increasing amounts of abdominal fat, and low HDL are all modifiable risk factors that can cause type 2 diabetes.

The costs of diabetes are truly catastrophic. It increases the risk of developing heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, neuropathy (painful tingling of hands and feet), blindness, and arterial disease leading to amputations. 

5. Cardiovascular disease

As discussed earlier, cardiovascular disease comprises heart disease, strokes, and peripheral arterial disease, and the chances of developing it are increased if you have obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, or hypertension. Cardiovascular disease is terrible. Unfortunately, some of you may know this from your own experiences or those of a family member or friend. I know this from taking care of people in the emergency department. Seeing the fear in people’s eyes when they are having a heart attack or are unable to speak because they are having a stroke is heart-wrenching. 

6. Cancer

Anyone who has had cancer themselves or has a loved one with cancer knows how scary it can be. But like the other conditions mentioned, many times, it too can be preventable. There are obvious things that can be done, such as stopping smoking to lower the risk of lung cancer and applying sunscreen to prevent excess sun exposure and reduce the risk of skin cancer. Perhaps not as commonly known is that being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing some cancers, including uterine, breast (in postmenopausal women), ovarian, kidney, liver, pancreas, thyroid, and colorectal cancers. 

Once again, it is clear that the current American diet contributes to poor health.

All this seems like bad news, and, on the surface, it may very well be. However, thinking about it a bit leads to a new realization. Yes, the current American diet is appalling. But we have a choice. We don’t have to eat it. I understand other factors may be involved, such as convenience, time constraints, and cost. But, if health is a priority, then spending some time researching options can help overcome these hurdles.

It is incredible how profoundly our lives are affected by something as basic as what we put into our mouths each day. 

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For those interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend purchasing one of our many plant-based cookbooks or downloading the Food Monster App which has thousands of delicious recipes making it the largest vegan recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.

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