Why the Standard American Diet (SAD) Is So Sad

10 min read

Why the Standard American Diet (SAD) Is So Sad

Posted Oct 12, 2021 Updated Apr 15, 2024

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]

In fact, the United States spends 2.5 times more on health care than all other nations. Compared to 16 other developed nations, America is in last place when it comes to health and life expectancy. More than two-thirds of U.S. citizens are overweight, 33% are obese, with 18% obesity in children. [1] And SAD, our Standard American Diet, is behind a lot of it.

Dive in with us as we explore the Standard American Diet, how it impacts your microbiome, and how to trade SAD for healthier eating options:

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. It's also a diet low in vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. [2]

It also goes by the name Western pattern diet or the Western Diet. And you can start to get a sense of why this dietary pattern isn't so great for your health...

The Standard American Diet: Processed Foods

What Are Processed Foods?

A major component of the Standard American Diet is processed foods. But, what does "processed" mean?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed foods are any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to: [3] 

  • 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 

Why Are Processed Foods Bad for You?

Not all foods modified from their original state are inherently “bad”. For example, purchasing veggies that are pre-chopped is technically processed. Processed or not, those veggies are still nutritious!

But where we get into trouble is our love of processed foods like sodas, candy, ice cream, mass-produced bread, margarine, cereals, instant soups and noodles, and many other not-so-great-for-you products. [4]

A lot of these processed foods—like the refined grains in your white bread for example—are lower in nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals compared to their natural counterparts. In many cases, they're stripped of their nutrients and stuffed with colors, flavors, emulsifiers, and other additives to produce a final product that appears incredibly appetizing. [4]

Processed foods make mass food production a lot easier. Low-cost ingredients and a longer shelf life mean we can supply convenient, quick food for our growing population. Processed foods are so prevalent that today, they account for more than half of the total dietary energy consumed across high-income countries like the U.S., Canada, and the UK. [4]

But what are we losing in the process?

Research and experimental studies suggest that consuming highly processed foods cause high glycemic responses while not giving us the feeling of fullness or satiety. 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 a decline in the nutritional quality of your diet. And it could put you at a greater risk for obesity, hypertension, coronary diseases, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders, and other health concerns. [4]

How to Avoid Processed Foods

How can you spot these highly processed foods? It's trickier than you might think! For example, most store-bought bread and breakfast cereals are highly processed.

The trick is to closely examine the ingredients list. Processed foods often contain a lot of sugar. They also tend to contain ingredients like artificial flavors and colors. [4]

The Standard American Diet: Added Sugars

The Rise in Added Sugars

The United States is the leader in added sugar consumption. Three out of four of all products on American grocery store shelves contain added sugar. Yikes!

Today, the typical American consumes roughly 17 teaspoons of added sugars per day. This is approximately 50% higher than what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend. [5] 

Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

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 U.S, sodas represent the biggest contributors of added sugar in this sugar-sweetened beverage category. [6]

Consuming added sugars increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart and liver diseases, and tooth decay. And sure enough, as sugar consumption accelerated in 1980, we saw a rise in diabetes a decade later. [7] 

And those who consume too much added sugar typically have a poor diet that is higher in calories and lower in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. [7]

The Standard American Diet: Refined Grains

Whole vs. Refined Grains

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

  • 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

Why Are Whole Grains Better Than Refined Grains?

Refined grains are often stripped of their nutrients. Although some manufacturers add vitamins and minerals back into the grain, it's not quite the same. Whereas whole grains contribute greater nutritional value with higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other valuable substances.

A diet high in whole grains can help you manage a healthier weight and reduce your risk of heart disease. This is why the U.S. promotes 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. Some research claims that eating refined grains can increase your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, high lipids, or blood glucose. But the adverse consequences are not found consistently. [9] 

Regardless, whole grains are going to be your healthier choice. And those who enjoy a high whole-grain diet are more likely to have a healthier lifestyle. [9]

The Standard American Diet: Vegetables & 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.

We need our fruits and veggies! They're crucial to a healthy living. Yet, clearly, we're lacking these in our Standard American Diet.  [10]

The Standard American Diet: Sodium

Nine out of ten Americans consume too much sodium. Where's all this extra sodium coming from? 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 risk for high blood pressure, leading to heart disease and stroke. [11]

The Standard American Diet & Our Microbiome

The food we eat not only gives us the nutrients we need to survive, but it also feeds our gut bacteria otherwise known as your microbiome. Microbiome diversity is dramatically declining thanks in part to the prominence of our very sad Standard American Diet.

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. They found that we could also pass these effects on to later generations.

This study is a warning and a call for action as there is no regulation on highly processed food. Some food additives can be helpful for human health. But others can potentially harm our very-important gut microbiome. [13]

Standard American Diet vs. Hunter & 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 bacteria in their gut! Like those living hunter and gatherer lifestyles, our ancient human ancestors had more varied bacteria in their guts than Americans do today. [14]

To comprehend what a fully functional microbiome would look like, we look to 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 eats 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. That's less than one-third of the World Health Organization's recommended daily allowance! [14]

How to Make Your Diet Less SAD

The Standard American Diet is compromising our health. When it comes to our microbiome, consuming a diet rich in fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics may help reverse the damage caused by our SAD diet.

Sources of foods that naturally contain beneficial bacteria or probiotics include fermented foods, like yogurt, pickles, kimchee, kombucha, and sauerkraut. A diverse diet is also 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 more whole foods that have high nutrient density. Whole foods don't have added sugars, starches, or other manufactured ingredients.

Plus they're more nutrient-dense than heavily processed food. They contain 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. The body can't break down or absorb fiber, 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. But today, we're eating a lot less fiber. [14].

This is a problem because our microbiome needs fiber to survive. It nourishes the healthy bacteria in your gut, allows them to prosper, and improves your microbiome diversity. [14].

Take a Sip of OLIPOP

A major reason SAD has become so prevalent is that it offers easy and quick food options. After all, 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 brings you some of the ingredients and benefits of an age-old diet (minus the hunting and gathering!). We've spent years searching for ingredients backed by research to fuel your microbiome and improve your digestive health.

Today, OLIPOP is one of the fastest-growing functional beverages in the US. And, so far, we've contributed more than 75 million grams of fiber to the American diet.

Standard American Diet: The Takeaway

The Standard American Diet is rich in heavily processed foods, salt, sugars, and saturated fat. Eating these foods, while also avoiding foods like fruits, veggies, beans, and other whole foods can result in some major health consequences.

Taking steps to eat foods that support the health of you and your microbiome can be an essential step towards a healthier lifestyle. OLIPOP is here to help you take the first step in improving 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.
  • 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 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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