Why the Standard American Diet (SAD) Is So Sad

20 min read

Why the Standard American Diet (SAD) Is So Sad

Americans’ health is not in a good place. According to a report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, Americans "have a long-standing pattern of poorer health that is strikingly consistent and pervasive…The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries, but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary." [1] This is evidenced by the United States spending 2.5 times more on health care than all other nations. When put in comparison with 16 other developed nations, America is last in regards of health and life expectancy. More than two-thirds of United States citizens are overweight with 33% obese and 18% of children are obese[1]. SAD, our Standard American Diet, is behind all of this.

What is the Standard American Diet?

The Standard American Diet refers to a diet that is high in protein, processed foods, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars, while also being low in vegetables, complex carbohydrates and fiber[2].

Other names for Standard American Diet

Other names for the diet include Western pattern diet or the Western diet.

Processed Food

So, what are processed foods, anyways? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed foods are: any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state[3]. Processed food includes sodas, candy, ice cream, mass-produced bread, margarine, cereals, instant soups and noodles, and many more products[4].

It is important to note that not all foods that have been modified from their original state are inherently “bad”. For example, purchasing veggies that are pre-chopped are technically processed, but are just as nutritious as intact options.

In some cases, creating processed foods starts by fractionating whole foods into sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches, and fiber. Typically, these matters are taken from select high-yield plant foods such as corn, wheat, soy, or cane (where cane sugar comes from). If there is meat included in the processed food, the meat is taken from intensive livestock farming and then puréed or ground. Both the meat and plant substances are then submitted to hydrolysis, hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications. The following processes include arranging unmodified and modified food substances with few if any whole foods utilizing industrial techniques such as extrusion, molding, and pre-frying. Colors, flavors, emulsifiers, and other additives are often included to produce a final product that appears incredibly appetizing[4].

As you can imagine from their creation, certain types of processed foods — think refined grains, as an example — are lower in nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals compared to their natural counterparts.

Research and experimental studies suggest that consuming highly processed foods cause high glycemic responses while not being very filling or satisfying. Plus, eating these foods may not support a healthy microbiome and, thus, result in the body having an inflammatory response[4]. Additionally, consuming highly processed foods can result in the decline of the nutritional quality of the overall diet and puts the consumer at risk for obesity, hypertension, coronary diseases, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders, and certain cancers, including breast cancer[4].

Regardless of their unhealthy qualities, highly processed foods are extremely profitable because of their marketing and ability to provide convenient, quick food. The processes and ingredients utilized to manufacture processed foods are devised to produce very profitable products using low-cost ingredients and extending their shelf life. With vivid packaging, health claims, and special deals, producers of processed foods have, in general, been very successful at securing their convenient products on grocery store shelves9. Subsequently, ultra-processed foods have successfully replaced unprocessed and fresh foods in most parts of the world. Today, processed foods account for greater than half of the total dietary energy eaten in high-income countries, namely, the USA, Canada, and the UK[4].

Identifying highly processed food can be tricky. For example, most store-bought breads and breakfast cereal are considered to be highly processed. However, the trick is to examine a product's ingredients which, by law, are required. Foods that are minimally processed might contain sugar; however, those highly processed may also have added additional ingredients like added artificial flavors and colors[4].

Increase in Sugar

The United States is the leader in added sugar consumption. In three out of four of the products on American grocery store shelves, sugar is added. Today, the typical American consumes roughly 17 teaspoons of added sugars per day, which is approximately 50% higher than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and the World Health Organization (WHO[5]). From 1970 to 2005, the amount of added sugar in the American diet increased by 19%. This increase primarily stems from sugar-sweetened beverages, which on average supply 33% of total added sugar intake. In the United States, sodas are the most significant component of sugar-sweetened beverages[6].

Due to the rise in sugar consumption, the USA has had higher rates of obesity and diabetes. When sugar consumption accelerated in 1980, the obesity epidemic started with the diabetes epidemics the following suit a decade later[7]. Consuming added sugars increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart and liver diseases, and tooth decay. Further, those who consume too much added sugar typically have a poor overall diet that is higher in calories and lower in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains[7].

Increase in Refined Grain Consumption

Today, Americans consume far too many refined grains and not enough whole grains. What's the difference between refined and whole grains?

  • Whole grains contain all three parts of the kernel: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
  • Refined grains remove most of the bran and some of the germ.

Although some vitamins and minerals are added back to enhance the refined grains, whole grains contribute greater nutritional value with higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other valuable substances. Consuming whole grains is associated with healthy weight maintenance and reduced risk of heart disease. Therefore, the U.S. government has been promoting grains, especially whole grains, in the American diet[8].

In contrast, the health impacts of consuming refined grains are not as evident due to limited research on the matter. While research does insinuate that eating refined grains can increase risk of developing metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, high lipids or blood glucose, the adverse consequences are not found consistently[9]. Regardless, better health results and lower disease risks are associated with whole grains consumption, and those who eat whole grains are more likely to have healthier lifestyles and diets[9].

Decrease in Vegetables and Fruit

One in ten adults meets the federal fruit and vegetable recommendations. Consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps reduce the risk of many of the leading causes of illness; fruits and vegetables are crucial and should be put back into our diet[10].

Increase of Sodium

Nine out of ten Americans consume too much sodium. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 65% comes from food bought in stores, 25% comes from restaurants, and 10% comes from home cooking and at the table. Consuming too much sodium increases a person's prospect for high blood pressure, leading to heart disease and stroke[11].

Standard American Diet & Health

Today, the average American's diet consists of excess sodium, saturated fat, refined grains, and calories from solid fats and added sugars. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans states Americans eat fewer vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and oils than suggested. Because of our unhealthy diet, 35% of adults in the U.S. are obese. Moreover, it is thought that this statistic will grow to almost 50% within the next 15 years[12].

Standard American Diet & Our Microbiome

Our diet not only gives us the nutrients we need to survive, but our diet also provides our gut bacteria sustenance. Our microbiome diversity is dramatically declining thanks in part to the prominence of the SAD. In a review on the effects of ultra-processed food on gut microbiota, researchers concluded that ultra-processed food could alter the gut microbiota and lead to inflammation. Further, these effects can be carried to later generations through epigenetic change. Following the study, the researchers provided a complete list of risk factors that may affect the gut microbiota; however, the list continues to increase as our understanding proceeds to grow[13].

This study is a warning to us and a call for action as there is no regulation on highly processed food. While some food additives can be advantageous for human health, others can modify the microbiota structure and lead to gut inflammation, which promotes different variations of inflammatory diseases[13].

Standard American Diet VS Hunter and Gatherers

Today, the average American adult has around 1,200 different bacteria living inside their gut; in contrast, the modern-day average hunter-gatherer has about 1,600 species[14]. That is a full third more of bacteria in their guts. Like those living hunter and gatherer lifestyles, our ancient human ancestors have more varied bacteria in their guts than Americans do[14].

To comprehend what a fully functional microbiome would look like, we study the last remaining full-time hunter-gatherers in Africa. The Hadza people, the hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, have a diet most like that of our ancestors who lived before the arrival of agriculture. The tribe eat meat from hunted animals, berries, fruits and seeds, honey, and tubers. Researchers estimate they consume between 100 to 150 grams of fiber a day. In contrast, the average American gets only 10-15 grams of dietary fiber per day - less than one-third of the World Health Organization Recommended Daily Allowance[14].

Shifting back to Health from Standard American Diet

Clearly, our health is being compromised by factors like eating a Standard American Diet. When it comes to our microbiome, consuming a diet rich in food-borne microbes may reverse the damage caused by our SAD diet. Sources of foods that naturally contain beneficial bacteria include fermented foods, like yogurt, pickles, kimchee, kombucha, and sauerkraut. As you increase your exposure to microbes in your food, diet is essential in maintaining your microbiome's diversity[14].

Here are some ways you can begin eating to protect and promote better health and a supported microbiome:

Eat More Whole Foods

Make the change from consuming ultra processed foods like white bread and sugary products to eating whole foods that have high nutrient density. These are whole foods and they are close to their natural state. Therefore, they do not have added sugars, starches, or other manufactured ingredients.

Consuming whole foods aligns with federal dietary guidelines focusing on consuming real, unprocessed foods; it is an incredibly safe and healthy diet. Additionally, whole foods typically are more nutrient-dense than heavily processed food with a high ratio of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (nutrients from plants) to calories.

Focus on Fiber

Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that comes from fruits and vegetables; however, fiber can not be broken down or absorbed by the body, unlike other carbohydrates. Instead, fiber moves through the body undigested. Consuming a diet rich in fiber is crucial to maintaining and feeding your microbiome. Plants have supported and nourished a diverse microbiome in humans since the beginning of time, and today, plant fiber is no longer a substantial portion of our diet[14]. Our microbiomes thrive on dietary fiber: it nourishes them, allows them to prosper, and improves the microbiome's diversity[14].

You can read more about the health benefits associated with fiber and discover what foods are packed with fiber here.


A major reason SAD has become so prevalent is because it offers easy quick food options. The truth is, most people don't have the time to wander through the forest and woods, pick berries, and search for fibrous roots. That’s why OLIPOP does the wandering for you! OLIPOP is the first clinically backed delicious consumer beverage that brings you some of the ingredients and benefits of an age-old diet, and the ability to hold it all in the palm of your hand.

OLIPOP is the fastest-growing functional beverage in the US and, so far, has contributed more than 75 million grams of fiber to the American diet. Our co-founder and formulator, Ben, has spent years searching for ingredients backed by research and has historical evidence of working to fuel our microbiomes and improve our digestive health.

Standard American Diet: Takeaway

Eating a Standard American Diet is one that is rich in heavily processed foods, salt, sugars, and saturated fat. Eating these foods, while also avoiding foods like produce, beans, and other whole foods can result in some major negative health consequences. Taking steps to eat foods that support our overall health and a healthy microbiome can be an essential step to make sure you are doing all you can to take care of yourself. OLIPOP is here to help you take the first step in bettering your health and eating choices.


  1. Vani Hari, Feeding You Lies: How to Unravel the Food Industry’s Playbook and Reclaim Your Health (Hay House Inc, 2019).
  2. Standard American Diet (Independent Book Publishers Association , n.d.).
  3. “Processed Foods What You Should Know,” Mayo Clinic Health System, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/processed-foods-what-you-should-know.
  4. Carlos A Monteiro et al., “Ultra-Processed Foods: What They Are and How to Identify Them,” Public Health Nutrition 22, no. 5 (n.d.): 936–41, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980018003762.
  5. “Overview,” Healthy Food America, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.healthyfoodamerica.org/sugartoolkit_overview.
  6. Elizabeth E Hatch et al., “Intake of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Fecundability in a North American Preconception Cohort,” Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.) 29, no. 3 (May 2018): 369–78, https://doi.org/10.1097/EDE.0000000000000812. 
  7. “Overview,” Healthy Food America, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.healthyfoodamerica.org/sugartoolkit_overview..
  8. Biing-Hwan Lin and Steven T. Yen, “The U.S. Grain Consumption Landscape: Who Eats Grain, in What Form, Where, and How Much?,” n.d., accessed May 17, 2021.
  9. Jones, García, and Braun, “Perspective: Whole and Refined Grains and Health—Evidence Supporting ‘Make Half Your Grains Whole,’” Advances in Nutrition 11, no. 3 (November 4, 2019): 492–506, https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz114. 
  10. “CDC Press Releases,” CDC, January 1, 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html.
  11. “9 out of 10 Americans Eat Too Much Sodium Infographic,” www.heart.org, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sodium/9-out-of-10-americans-eat-too-much-sodium-infographic.
  12. Heather Stephens, “The Effects of an American Diet on Health - CAS - Inquiro - Journal of Undergrad. Research,” n.d., https://www.uab.edu/inquiro/issues/past-issues/volume-9/82-the-effects-of-an-american-diet-on-health. 
  13. Zumin Shi, “Gut Microbiota: An Important Link between Western Diet and Chronic Diseases,” Nutrients 11, no. 10 (September 24, 2019): 2287, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11102287.
  14. Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health (Penguin, 2015).
Cheat Sheet
  • The Standard American Diet (SAD) is a diet pattern high in calories, sodium, refined carbs, added sugars, and fats and that lacks many nutrients found in whole foods, like dietary fiber.
  • The shift from a whole food-based diet to the SAD has been linked to industrialized agriculture and livestock production, the availability of highly processed foods, and dining out of the home.
  • Highly processed foods are foods made with additives you wouldn’t find in your home. Think: soda, chicken nuggets, store-bought baked goods, and chips.
  • This dietary pattern has been blamed for contributing to diet-related diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
  • A diet rich in whole foods is better for your health and may even reverse some of the damages caused by SAD.

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