The typical U.S. diet: More of Unhealthy foods, Less of Healthy foods










        The typical American or U.S.-based diet is a major contributing factor to the onset of being overweight and obesity. The average U.S. diet contributes to excess intake of salt, extra sugar, more refined carbohydrates, solid fats, and saturated fats than the body’s caloric needs for a given individual’s BMI, level of physical activity, age, and gender. The intake of such ingredients is significant contributing factor that leads to weight gain and onset of chronic health problems associated with being overweight or obese as presented elsewhere here. While the above-mentioned macronutrients play documented role in development of long-term health consequences, the role of refined carbohydrates and added sugar present in foods in common U.S. diet that promotes unhealthy eating is evident as presented below. The primary sources of calories in any given diet are derived from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Each of these biomolecules (hereby referred as macronutrients) is needed by the body for optimum functioning. When one or more of these macronutrients are not found at sufficient levels in the body under certain conditions like say prolonged periods of starvation, eating limited variety of foods, injury or stresses to the body, then nutritional deficits and accompanying dysfunction of the body can arise. On the other hand, when a person consumes excess or extra amount of these macronutrients, then various illnesses are observed based on the nature of excess macronutrient. The role of these macronutrients has been well established by extensive number of studies and here I will just present the role of carbohydrates and added sugar in typical U.S. diet.

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     Carbohydrates are the primary source of calories or energy in the body to carry out various functions; the lack of sufficient carbohydrates results in lack or energy, general malaise, feeling tired, not refreshed even after rest, and decreased endurance to carry out moderately active lifestyle. Moreover, the type of carbohydrates consumed is equally or more important in living healthy life. As you may know, carbohydrates are divided into two major groups, namely, simple or non-complex carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Each type of these carbohydrates are digested and processed differently in the body and cause varied biochemical reactions in the body during and after digestion of such carbohydrates. In general, simple carbohydrates are foods like table sugar, honey, white bread, dinner rolls, buns for hotdogs or hamburgers, regular or enriched pasta, pancakes, cookies, cake, crackers, biscuits, pizza crust, boxed cereals and the like that made from bleached wheat flour, enriched wheat flour or all-purpose flour whereby the grains used to make them are highly processed to make such items. The processing of these grains leads to loss of important micronutrients like vitamins, minerals and even macronutrients like protein and natural fiber. However, in enriched flour, the food companies do add some vitamins and minerals that are eliminated during processing or whole grains or kernels. Nonetheless, the full composition and fiber in the whole grains are not restored by the enrichment process. Conversely, complex carbohydrates are foods made from or made of whole grains like wheat, rolled oats, corn, millet, bulgur, rye, buckwheat, quinoa, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice and the like. Foods made from whole grains have undergone minimal processing as to preserve important vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber contained in such grains. When the grains are cracked, ground, roasted or crushed they must retain all the contents present in the whole grain seed or kernel to be considered whole grains food products. The exact and percentage composition of whole grains foods have to be discovered on food labels or stated on the package. There other food groups that contain complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, certain nuts, and seeds. However, this presentation focuses on types of carbohydrates eaten in typical U.S. diet. The basic difference between simple and complex carbohydrates is that biochemical units (as analogous to bricks in home) of glucose (a type of or most simple carbohydrate unit) or other single carbohydrate units different than glucose are linked together in long chains in the former, while carbohydrate units are linked in long branch-like structures (similar to branches of trees) or interconnected in the latter. This fundamental difference causes different responses in the body upon its intake.

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     Simple carbohydrates cause rapid spike and fall in insulin levels that aid in shuttling glucose broken down during food digestion from bloodstream into cells of the body. In contrast, complex carbohydrates due their branched structure cause slower release of glucose or carbohydrate units upon digestion that causes slower and lesser increase in insulin levels. Moreover, the insulin levels are released over sustained periods of time to deal with slower release of carbohydrate units or molecules compared to simple carbohydrate-containing foods. This major insulin response has profound effect on rate of metabolism, rate of burning of calories during digestion, sensation of hunger and satiety among other factors when meals are eaten composed of either primarily simple versus complex carbohydrates. The quick spike and fall of insulin and glucose (in the blood) over course of day due to eating diet consisting of simple carbohydrates over period of time creates internal physiological environment that can lead to health problems like diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance, various types of cancer, weight gain (due to eating excess amount of calories from simple carbohydrate foods), lack of sustained energy due to rapid spike and fall of glucose levels in the body, and feeling of hunger or lack of satiety short time after such meals. Another common term that you may heard of is glycemic index; it consists of describing a food and how it causes spike in blood sugar and insulin levels after eating such a food. In general, foods that are have high glycemic index are made of refined grains or simple carbohydrates and cause rapid and high levels of blood glucose and insulin. By contrast, foods with low glycemic index are made up of whole grains or complex carbohydrates, and hence trigger slower and sustained release of glucose into the blood and steadier levels of insulin in response to their intake.


     Th20386534_se average U.S. diet consists of foods based on use of simple carbohydrates or refined grains or added sugar or worse yet the combination of two. In addition, there are other harmful or unhealthy ingredients mixed in with refined grains or flour-based foods and added sugar, namely, solid fats and saturated fats. The combination of these ingredients over period of time when eaten in amounts more than required for an individual’s level of metabolic activity as presented elsewhere here is the primary driver towards becoming overweight or obese. The empirical data collected by National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey from 2010 provides glimpse of the typical U.S. diet and categories of food eaten by various age groups. It shows that large portion of such diet consists of food made up of or made from refined grains as highlighted above consisting mostly of simple carbohydrates and lesser or minimum amounts of complex carbohydrates. Furthermore, such diet also has high content of added sugars in the foods; the types of added sugar are listed below and readily seen of food labels for packaged or processed food items.1 Added sugars do not consist of naturally found  sugars in milk or fruits, but are added during processing or making of food items or are added separately into foods.The composition of diet was determined by reporting eaten foods over course of day for period of time and assigned into 97 different food categories used in this study that for data analysis are clustered into major food types as shown in Table 1 as well as Tables 2, 3 for foods with refined grains and added sugar. The conclusion of this study and similar such studies is that the typical U.S. diet consists of foods rich in refined grains or simple carbohydrates and added sugars that lack daily recommended levels of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. The typical American diet when couple with high total and saturated fats and sodium or salt levels (these topics will be presented later) are major contributors to weight gain along with excess intake of calories. The reasonable and practical way towards weight loss through healthy living begins by eating more complex carbohydrate-based diet that include whole grains, more servings of fruits and vegetables, inclusion of legumes, nuts, seeds, and less use of added sugar food products like soda pop, sugary cereals, and excessive portions or binge eating of unhealthy snacks, fried foods or fatty foods like regular ice cream, whole milk dairy product, butter, and the like. There will be further information presented here later on types of beneficial and harmful foods for effective weight loss.



 Table 1: Types of Foods eaten by various groups in the U.S population

                               from NHANES 2005-2006a


overall, ages 2+ yrs (Mean kcal/d; total daily calories = 2,157)

children and adolescents, ages 2–18 yrs (Mean kcal/d; total daily calories = 2,027)

adults and older adults, ages 19+ yrs (Mean kcal/d; total daily calories = 2,199)


Grain-based dessertsb (138 kcal)

Grain-based desserts (138 kcal)

Grain-based desserts (138 kcal)


Yeast breadsc (129 kcal)

Pizza (136 kcal)

Yeast breads (134 kcal)


Chicken and chicken mixed dishesd (121 kcal)

Soda/energy/sports drinks (118 kcal)

Chicken and chicken mixed dishes (123 kcal)


Soda/energy/sports drinkse (114 kcal)

Yeast breads (114 kcal)

Soda/energy/sports drinks (112 kcal)


Pizza (98 kcal)

Chicken and chicken mixed dishes (113 kcal)

Alcoholic beverages (106 kcal)


Alcoholic beverages (82 kcal)

Pasta and pasta dishes (91 kcal)

Pizza (86 kcal)


Pasta and pasta dishesf (81 kcal)

Reduced fat milk (86 kcal)

Tortillas, burritos, tacos (85 kcal)


Tortillas, burritos, tacosg (80 kcal)

Dairy desserts (76 kcal)

Pasta and pasta dishes (78 kcal)


Beef and beef mixed dishesh (64 kcal)

Potato/corn/other chips (70 kcal)

Beef and beef mixed dishes (71 kcal)


Dairy dessertsi (62 kcal)

Ready-to-eat cereals (65 kcal)

Dairy desserts (58 kcal)


Potato/corn/other chips (56 kcal)

Tortillas, burritos, tacos (63 kcal)

Burgers (53 kcal)


Burgers (53 kcal)

Whole milk (60 kcal)

Regular cheese (51 kcal)


Reduced fat milk (51 kcal)

Candy (56 kcal)

Potato/corn/other chips (51 kcal)


Regular cheese (49 kcal)

Fruit drinks (55 kcal)

Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (49 kcal)


Ready-to-eat cereals (49 kcal)

Burgers (55 kcal)

Nuts/seeds and nut/seed mixed dishes (47 kcal)


Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (49 kcal)

Fried white potatoes (52 kcal)

Fried white potatoes (46 kcal)


Fried white potatoes (48 kcal)

Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (47 kcal)

Ready-to-eat cereals (44 kcal)


Candy (47 kcal)

Regular cheese (43 kcal)

Candy (44 kcal)


Nuts/seeds and nut/seed mixed dishesj (42 kcal)

Beef and beef mixed dishes (43 kcal)

Eggs and egg mixed dishes (42 kcal)


Eggs and egg mixed dishesk (39 kcal)

100% fruit juice, not orange/grapefruit (35 kcal)

Rice and rice mixed dishes (41 kcal)


Rice and rice mixed dishesl (36 kcal)

Eggs and egg mixed dishes (30 kcal)

Reduced fat milk (39 kcal)


Fruit drinksm (36 kcal)

Pancakes, waffles, and French toast (29 kcal)

Quickbreads (36 kcal)


Whole milk (33 kcal)

Crackers (28 kcal)

Other fish and fish mixed disheso (30 kcal)


Quickbreadsn (32 kcal)

Nuts/seeds and nut/seed mixed dishes (27 kcal)

Fruit drinks (29 kcal)


Cold cuts (27 kcal)

Cold cuts (24 kcal)

Salad dressing (29 kcal)


a. Data are drawn from analyses of usual dietary intakes conducted by the National Cancer Institute. Foods and beverages consumed were divided into 97 categories and ranked according to calorie contribution to the diet. Table shows each food category and its mean calorie contribution for each age group. Additional information on calorie contribution by age, gender, and race/ethnicity is available at

b. Includes cake, cookies, pie, cobbler, sweet rolls, pastries, and donuts. c. Includes white bread or rolls, mixed-grain bread, flavored bread, whole-wheat bread, and bagels. d. Includes fried or baked chicken parts and chicken strips/patties, chicken stir-fries, chicken casseroles, chicken sandwiches, chicken salads, stewed chicken, and other chicken mixed dishes. e. Sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened bottled water including vitamin water. f. Includes macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, other pasta with or without sauces, filled pasta (e.g., lasagna and ravioli), and noodles
g. Also includes nachos, quesadillas, and other Mexican mixed dishes. h. Includes steak, meatloaf, beef with noodles, and beef stew. i. Includes ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, milk shakes, and pudding. j. Includes peanut butter, peanuts, and mixed nuts. k. Includes scrambled eggs, omelets, fried eggs, egg breakfast sandwiches/ biscuits, boiled and poached eggs, egg salad, deviled eggs, quiche, and egg substitutes. l. Includes white rice, Spanish rice, and fried rice. m. Includes fruit-flavored drinks, fruit juice drinks, and fruit punch. n. Includes muffins, biscuits, and cornbread. o. Fish other than tuna or shrimp.

Adapted from USDA: Source: National Cancer Institute. Food sources of energy among U.S. population, 2005-2006. Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods. Control and Population Sciences. National Cancer Institute; 2010. http://riskfactor. Updated May 21, 2010. Accessed May 21, 2010.


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Table 2 : The consumption of refined grains in the diets of the population

ages 2 years old and older in USA, NHANES 2003–2004.(% of total diet)

1.  Yeast Breads                                                                                 25.9

2.  Pizza                                                                                             11.4

3.  Grain-based desserts                                                                       9.9

4.  Tortillas, burritos, tacos                                                                   8.0

5.  Pasta and pasta side dishes                                                             6.7

6.  Chicken-based dishes                                                                      4.4

7.  Rice and rice-based dishes                                                               4.4

8.  Potato/corn/other chips                                                                    3.8

9.  Ready-to-mix breads                                                                        3.4

10. Burgers                                                                                          2.9

11. Crackers                                                                                         2.8

12. Boxed Cereals                                                                                 2.4

13. Pretzels                                                                                           2.3

14. Pancakes/french Toast/waffles                                                          2.2

15. All other categories not classified above                                             9.5


a. Data are drawn from analyses of usual dietary intake conducted by the National Cancer Institute. Foods and beverages consumed were divided into 97 categories and ranked according to added sugars contribution to the diet. “All other food categories” represents food categories that each contributes less than 2% of the total added sugar intake.

Adapted from USDA: Source: National Cancer Institute. Sources of added sugars in the diets of the U.S. population ages 2 years and older, NHANES 2005–2006. Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods. Cancer Control and Population Sciences. html. Accessed August 11, 2010.


Table 3: The contribution of various added sugars consumed in U.S. diets

for population ages 2 years old and above, NHANES 2005-2006.a (% of total diet)


1.  Soda/sports drinks/energy drinks                                                                     35.7

2.  Grain-based desserts                                                                                       12.9

3.  Fruit-based beverages                                                                                     10.5

4.  Milk-based desserts                                                                                          6.5

5.  Candy                                                                                                              6.1

6.  Shelf-stable cereals                                                                                           3.8

7.  Sugars and honey                                                                                              3.5

8.  Tea                                                                                                                   3.5

9.  Yeast breads                                                                                                      2.1

10. All other categories not listed above                                                                   15.4


 Types of added sugars that can be listed as an ingredient:

Anhydrous dextrose


Brown sugar

Malt syrup

Confectioner’s powdered sugar


Corn syrup

Maple syrup

Corn syrup solids



Nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)


Pancake syrup

High-fructose corn syrup

Raw sugar

Honey Sucrose

Invert sugar


White granulated sugar

Other added sugars may be listed as an ingredient but are not recognized by FDA as an ingredient name. These include cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, liquid fructose, sugar cane juice, and fruit nectar.

a. Data are drawn from analyses of usual dietary intake conducted by the National Cancer Institute. Foods and beverages consumed were divided into 97 categories and ranked according to added sugars contribution to the diet. “All other food categories” represents food categories that each contributes less than 2% of the total added sugar intake.

Adapted from USDA: Source: National Cancer Institute. Sources of added sugars in the diets of the U.S. population ages 2 years and older, NHANES 2005–2006. Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods. Cancer Control and Population Sciences. html. Accessed August 11, 2010.

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