How the Western Diet Has Changed in Nutrition and Calories

By Hans Diehl, M.D.

Before 1900 the North American diet consisted mostly of nutritious foods grown in local gardens and nearby farms, supplemented with a few staples from the general store. Their meat came from barnyard animals and range-fed cattle. Our grandparents didn't have thousands of beautifully packaged high calorie, highly promoted food products waiting for them at the supermarket. High calorie fast-food restaurants didn't beckon from every street corner. 


The Standard American Diet (SAD) has been shifting, resulting in a dramatic change in its composition. Today more calories come from sugar (simple carbohydrates) than from starch (complex carbohydrates) and more than one third of the calories come from fat. (U.S. 1860-2000)


The backbone of their diet was kernels—nutritious kernels of wheat and other grains growing in reassuring profusion. Families ate freshly cooked food and thick slices of nutritious home-baked bread around their own tables. They enjoyed hot cereals, corn-bread, and biscuits. They ate rice, pasta, and corn, along with beans, potatoes, vegetables, and fruit. These nutritious high-fiber foods made up 53% of their daily calorie intake.

But times and tastes have changed dramatically. Nutritious food cereals like oatmeal have been replaced by cold, presweetened flakes. Lunch now typically consists of a salad soaked in oily dressing, a hamburger, and a soda. And a high calorie dinner often comes frozen in a cardboard box or from the Colonel. Between meals there are sodas, chips, Ding Dongs, and doughnuts. Nutritious, high-fiber foods now represent only 24 percent of our daily calories, while fat and sugar intake have increased by 250%.


That's Frightening! What Can Be Done?

Education is the key. As people learn that refinement robs food of most of its fiber and nutrients, and processing adds calories, subtracts nutrition, and contributes scores of chemical additives, many are willing to make changes.


People are also realizing that meat and dairy products should be used sparingly. While they carry nutrients, most are too high in fat, cholesterol, protein, and calories, are loaded with hormones and pesticides, and contain virtually no fiber.

Today's people are increasingly giving up their preoccupation with rich animal products and processed foods. Instead, they are eating more complex carbohydrates—whole plant nutritious foods, usually rich in fiber. Since 1970 the consumption of meat, whole milk, and eggs has decreased, and so has the number of heart attacks and strokes.

People know it, and science confirms it. The road to better health and longer life detours around fast-food outlets, feedlot animals, and shops full of contrived and depleted foods. Instead, the road leads us back to the gardens and farmlands of our country—to the fresh fruits and crisp vegetables, and to the nutritious kernels of golden grain.

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