The American diet—or what professional nutritionists call the Western diet—is a horrible way to eat. We’re all out of whack in what and how much we consume, especially in our balance of foods. Many Americans wanting to eat better or improve their health seek out diets like Atkins or Keto (both limit carbohydrate intake) or consider eating a vegetarian or vegan diet (both tend to reduce protein intake). While these each have benefits such as weight loss, lower blood pressure, balancing hormonal response, and better mental health, they’re also large shifts and hard to maintain in the long term.
If you’re attracted to those diets and lifestyles, go for it! But if you like what you’re already eating in the Western diet, you do have some options. In addition to my martial arts and competitive weightlifting experience, I’m a certified personal trainer with specialties in nutrition, weight loss, and nutrition coaching; so, let’s see what I can help you tweak in your American diet to improve your overall health.
Macros are key
Macromolecules are our basic nutrition components and what are most out of whack in the Western diet: high in carbohydrate intake, low in protein intake, and lots of unhealthy fats. Let’s start by looking at the ratio of macros we should be striving for.
I listed this first because it’s generally much lower than Americans expect. Here’s a rough ideal range for various activity levels:
- No activity: 0.8g to 1.2g/kg of body weight; for an 180lb person, 65-98g
- Light to moderate activity: 1.2g to 2g/kg of body weight; for an 180lb person, 98-164g
- Moderate to vigorous activity: 1.5g to 2.2g/kg of body weight; for an 180lb person, 123-180g
Unfortunately, since carbohydrates are typically easier to find in our diet, most people who aren’t tracking their macro intake tend to land around 40 to 60g of protein, if they’re lucky. I’ve seen people over the age of 60 who were only getting about 30g a day, and even some very active clients with intake lower than 50% of their target range. But look at those numbers—even at the low end, for little or no activity, you should be consuming 65g daily. If you’re exercising, lifting weights, or even walking regularly, you should be in the 120g range or more, depending on your activity level and goals.
It’s also important to understand what kind of protein matters for these totals: whole protein, that has all nine essential amino acids. Most vegetable sources are incomplete proteins, with one or two exceptions; since they usually only have a few grams of protein, even working to intake complementary proteins might not be enough to hit your protein goals. Protein from animal sources is complete and usually denser, so this is an easier way to increase your totals. You can also supplement with options like powder or tablets, which can be especially effective if you’re working out and want to get the numbers you need without adding calories.
Let’s get one thing straight first: carbs are not evil. They’re essential to all body processes and we shouldn’t restrict carb intake over an extended period. We do need to eat the right kinds of carbs. Sugar and refined carbohydrates of all types are less useful because they give our bodies excess energy to store as fat, without the benefits of the micronutrients and vitamins that come with more complex carbs.
We should get our carbs from the following sources, in order of priority:
- Green vegetables
The Western diet emphasizes vegetables like corn and potatoes. Corn should be treated as a grain, since it’s essentially a bundle of sugar. Potatoes are a better vegetable, but we usually eat them fried as chips or French fries or load them with extra fats and other yummy things that aren’t good for us. Green vegetables are a better source for complex carbs.
Fruits are loaded with sugar. It’s not table sugar, but it functions largely the same way. However, fruits are also loaded with fiber, necessary vitamins, and phytonutrients—which are essential to good nutrition. Green veggies are also full of these goodies without all the sugar coating, so this is another good reason to prioritize them first.
Grains are last. Why? Because most of us tend to default to white flour, found in everything from pasta to bread to all kinds of snacks and cereals. Grains should only be consumed in a whole form, complete with the fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients we need. Switching to whole wheat bread and pasta is a good start, but you should also keep an eye on your serving sizes. One slice of whole wheat bread or a half-cup of cooked whole wheat pasta is almost half of the carbs needed in one day, and most people will eat four times that amount in one meal.
The USDA recommended carbohydrate intake is 45-65% of your total daily calories, with a sugar recommendation of less than 10% of your total daily caloric intake. If we break that number down a little: on a 2000 calorie daily diet, which is reasonable for most inactive, non-macro-tracking people, at the low end you’d consume 900 calories or 225 grams of daily carbs. One can of Coke has 65g of carbohydrates from sugar, so you can see how this quickly adds up. Most people eat two or three times the carbs they need.
Carbohydrate intake is a major reason the Western diet is a bit backwards. These numbers are for a non-dieting person, not trying to lose weight; if you are trying to lose weight, the recommended calorie intake tops out at 1500-1800 daily, depending on starting weight and other factors. That drops daily carb intake to 168g, at the low end. It’s important to mind both your intake source, and how much you’re consuming.
Fats are also not villainous and should be consumed as part of a healthy diet; but, like carbs, we need the right kinds. The hormones in our bodies are created partially from fat and cholesterol and some studies have linked low fat diets to low testosterone in men, with similar results for women. Let’s not shy away from fat, let’s just eat the right type: think olive or avocado oil, rather than animal fats.
Saturated fats should be kept to a minimum: less than 20g per day, or less than 10% of total caloric intake. Saturated fats are usually solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Lard, palm and coconut oil, and margarine and butter are all examples of saturated fats.
Transfats are terrible: stay away from them.
Partially hydrogenated oils are also terrible for us, and you should keep your intake as low as possible or stay away from them altogether.
Monounsaturated fats are good fats. Olive oil, nuts, avocados: most of our fat intake should come from this type.
Polyunsaturated fats are also good fats. Sunflower seeds, flax oil, salmon and other fish, soybean and safflower oils are all typical sources. This should make up the rest of your fat intake.
These last two fats are good because they carry additional health benefits, such as raising LDL cholesterol, lowering your HDL cholesterol, and raising your triglyceride count. All of these have significant impact on your long-term health. You should keep saturated fats to less than 10% of your total caloric intake, replacing them with good fats (those mono- and polyunsaturated fats) as much as possible while keeping your total fat intake between 25 and 30% of your total caloric intake.
Ideas for simple changes
Cook with olive oil as much as possible. Eat lean beef no more than three times per week, and lean chicken or fish four or more times per week. Limit eggs to one per day, or maybe three per week. Consume only low-fat dairy. Keep an eye on culprits like simple sugars and saturated fats.
Aim for three daily meals, with one snack. Eat most of your carbohydrates for the day in the morning or by lunch: this will help you use them right away instead of storing them as extra fat. Have protein at every meal. Eat lots of vegetables and some fruit with each meal. Use animal fats sparingly and cook your lean animal protein almost exclusively with high quality olive oil. Eat all things in moderation, and keep this nutritional information in mind when making meal choices.