Transforming the American Diet – Necessity and Challenges

By Fatuma-Ayaan Rinderknecht


It is common knowledge that obesity and poor diet are rising trends in the United States, and are leading to increased disease and higher health care costs.  To reverse those trends, Americans must reduce intake of processed foods and adopt a more plant-based diet.  Educational and regulatory steps are needed to improve the American diet and to reverse the debilitating effects of poor diet.

According to the 2014 Global Status Report released by the World Health Organization, the United States is the second most obese nation in the world; only second to Mexico. Obesity increases the likelihood of diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. These health trends have coincided with a decline in the quality of the typical American diet, where there is over-reliance on processed foods that have added sugar and fats, usually to satisfy taste and convenience preferences, at the expense of nutritional value. This significant change in the American diet is directly contributing to increased health problems and to rising health care costs.  The American diet also causes environmental sustainability problems.  For example, the US food production system uses about 50% of the total US land area, 80% of the fresh water, and 17% of the fossil energy used in the country; raising animals for protein takes substantially more resources than raising plants.

As the population grows, and as global warming leads to water shortages, the current food system will not be sustainable. With recent recommendations from the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, suggesting that the American diet move more toward a plant-based regimen with fewer sugars, processed foods, and meat, there may be an opportunity to substantially improve health conditions of many Americans. From both a health policy standpoint and from an environmental standpoint, improving the American diet is critically necessary. However, there are significant challenges that must be overcome. 

The USDA Dietary Guidelines are released every five years, and the most recent 2015 version numbered over 500 pages. The guidelines outlined what foods Americans should be eating in greater proportions and what they should be cutting out.  The USDA called for a huge reduction in saturated fats, red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and refined grains. These food groups seem to be contributing the most to unhealthy eating habits and weight gain. While Americans should be focused on phasing these foods out of their diet, the guidelines also suggest that they should also begin transitioning to healthier foods. The report also called for sustainability, and effort from Americans to create a diet that would be healthier for the environment too, explaining the advised increase in produce. While the report did give general guidelines that they believed the American population should follow, it also recommended that dietary patterns be tailored to the individual’s biological and medical needs . By incorporating the guidelines’ main tenets  into their lifestyles, Americans would be able to increase their overall health.

Improving daily diets has been proven to decrease the risk for many diseases and to generally improve health. A study, published in 2013, fed volunteers a diet that coincided with the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines and showed that these volunteers had lower cholesterol levels than those who followed a typical American diet. The study also showed that volunteers who followed the USDA Guidelines had overall positive changes in cardiovascular disease risk factors. A similar study showed that Chinese adults who followed the US Dietary Guidelines were associated with lower mortality rate. Both these studies showed that following the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines led to better health. So the studies make clear that better health is achievable.

However, both adherence to and knowledge of the USDA Dietary Guidelines are fairly low across the country. This poses a major problem as the nation is currently in a dire situation in terms of health and nutrition. It is imperative that health officials and policy makers begin to look at ways to increase knowledge and adherence to the USDA Dietary Guidelines.  Policy makers should aim to include knowledge concerning the dietary guidelines in public school curriculum as well as begin to implement them in school lunches. While educating children about nutrition is important, it’s also necessary to spread this knowledge to adults and parents often tasked with preparing meals.  In hosting community outreach sessions on healthy diets, and training primary care doctors to have conversations with patients about nutrition, policy makers could increase the knowledge of the dietary guidelines and impact the health of the population.

Given the state of obesity in the U.S., additional steps would also be beneficial and provide important benefits to public health.  While undoubtedly controversial in the current political environment, there needs to be increased government regulation of the food industry.  The U.S. food industry generates $900 billion in annual revenue, and saturates the population with advertising and an abundance of processed foods.  Food processing makes foods more durable, accessible, convenient, attractive, and ready-to-eat.  Ultra-food processing leads to microbial deterioration and allows for longer shelf life while making the foods easily transportable over long distances.  Processing also makes the foods more palatable, which has led to habit-forming behavior in consumers.  The foods are designed to be consumed anywhere…in fast food restaurants, while driving in the car, while home watching television, working, or surfing the internet.  But there is a huge downside to the convenience: processing foods are a direct contributor to obesity and to declining health in many sectors of the population.

A key problem with nutrition and health in this country is that the marketing and product strategies of the food companies are hugely successful, and consumers are literally “eating up” the ultra-processed foods.  Much like the tobacco companies of the 1950s-1980s, the corporate strategies are highly effective, but are literally killing consumer and contributing substantially to rising health care costs.  Given the epidemic nature of obesity and declining health, the government should step in and regulate the food industry to require full disclosure of the health detriments of processed foods and sugar additives, or should consider placing taxes on those types of foods.  With inclusion of a processed food tax, consumption would be lower due to the higher price, and tax revenues could be allocated to offset rising health care costs, and to provide incentive for both producers and consumers to shift towards plant-based diets.

Poor diet and obesity are extremely widespread and serious problems in the U.S., and diet is just one, albeit a large, factor in solving the problem.  With a combination of educational and health policy initiatives designed to improve the American diet, we have an opportunity to reduce our reliance upon processed foods and to positively contribute to the health of the population. 

Fatuma is a senior at Harvard College, concentrating in Human Evolutionary Biology, with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. 


To learn more about how dietary guidelines affect nutrition in the US and to take action: 

Looking closely at the 2015 Dietary Guidelines

Eating in accordance with the guidelines

How the guidelines may affect food stamps

To contribute to an organization that improves nutrition inequalities