The average American diet is half junk

The average American diet is half junk

Ultra-processed foods – those manufactured pre-packaged convenience foods heavy in extra sugar, salt and fat – comprise nearly 60 percent of the American diet, according to a team of Brazilian and American researchers from the University of Sao Paula and Tufts University in Boston.

The research team analyzed 9,300 adults and children who kept detailed food diaries.

Researchers defined ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats include substances not used in culinary preparation.”

These substances are chemically processed, which means they are manufactured with additives and flavorings, oftentimes used to mimic the taste of real foods.

“The most common ultra-processed foods in terms of energy contribution [food consumed] were breads; soft drinks, fruit drinks and milk-based drinks; cakes, cookies and pies; salty snacks; frozen and shelf-stable plates; pizza and breakfast cereals,” the researchers said in the report.

“These dietary habits don’t just expand our waistlines, but they raise our rates of heart disease, diabetes, and even certain cancers,” says Dr. Emelie Ilarde, a family medicine physician with Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill.

“People who eat a diet high in plant-based foods have lower rates of these diseases,” says Dr. Ilarde.

While the study found that most people ate about 650 calories from fruits and vegetables in the average 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, Dr. Ilarde says that it should be at least double that number, or 1,300 calories.

“Our bodies are designed to run on non-processed foods; we are not equipped to digest and efficiently utilize foods that are chemically processed,” says Dr. Ilarde. “While we don’t yet know all the ways highly processed foods affect our bodies, we do know that processed foods are usually high in sugar and sugar substitutes, which are detrimental to our health on so many levels.”

She says that too much sugar can lead to:

  • Insulin resistance, which can contribute to Type 2 diabetes;
  • High triglycerides, which is a type of fat in the blood that can increase the risk for heart disease;
  • Increased levels of harmful cholesterol that lead to heart disease;
  • Increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal area. Fat stored near the liver makes inflammatory substances that contribute to diabetes and heart disease.

Federal guidelines caution that no more than 10 percent of daily calories should come from sugar. However, the ultra-processed foods contribute nearly 90 percent of all added sugars in the U.S. diet and equal more than 20 percent of calories consumed, according to the study evidence.

“Eating a well-balanced diet heavily made up of fruits and vegetables and supplemented with lean meats, complex carbohydrates and low fat dairy – with the occasional treat – will help the majority of people lower their risk for devastating and life-changing diseases,” says Dr. Ilarde.

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About the Author

Kate Eller
Kate Eller

Kate Eller was a regional director of public affairs and marketing operations for Advocate Health Care. She enjoys road trips, dogs, minimalism, yoga, hiking, and “urban hiking.”