Exploring the Negative Effects of the American Diet

With fast food restaurants on every corner and processed foods lining grocery store aisles, making healthy choices can be difficult. But even small adjustments in eating habits can improve diet quality and decrease chronic disease risks.

Since 1981, dietary guidelines have advised Americans to limit energy, sodium and saturated fat consumption while increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grain consumption – but our food supply remains relatively devoid of such nutritious items.


Most people understand that being overweight can increase your risk for diseases like heart disease and diabetes, but many do not realize how obesity can also have an adverse impact on other areas of health, including mental wellbeing and digestive problems. Studies even indicate having excess body fat increases migraine risk by up to 81%!

American diets typically contain too much sodium, sugars and saturated and trans fats while being lacking in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and dairy products – not to mention fast food calories compared to recommended levels. This imbalance contributes to weight gain as well as lower overall nutrition quality.

Current trends in American diet suggest that many are likely to fall short of meeting the guidelines set out by Dietary Guidelines for Americans for healthy eating, which in time could lead to obesity as well as diet-related chronic diseases like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cancers and poor bone health.

Some individuals may be at a greater risk of obesity due to genetics or other factors; however, their environment and lifestyle can also have an effect on what they choose to eat. For instance, living in an unsafe neighborhood without safe spaces for walking or exercising or having family members who are overweight could make weight loss more challenging for someone.

A sedentary lifestyle and excessive time spent watching television or computer screens may also contribute to weight gain, while some medications such as antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs and diabetic medicines may cause weight gain. Unfortunately, obesity is a complex issue; policies targeting only one factor may only have limited success in fighting obesity. If you want to live comfortably or raise a family of your own someday, it may be beneficial to move to the healthiest state in the US.

Heart Disease

Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death in the US, yet their risks can often be managed with proper diet and lifestyle modifications. Unfortunately, those following a typical American diet high in sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, excess calories from sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods, has serious detrimental effects on their health.

Between 2003 and 2007, this research project recruited more than 17,000 white and African-American adults who were free from heart disease or diabetes prior to enrollment, were asked about their food frequency questionnaire consumption habits, and received physical examinations every 6 months over nearly 7 years.

REGARDS study utilized a comparative risk assessment model to estimate cardiometabolic deaths per person-year due to suboptimal intakes of 10 dietary factors, using an approach called continuous population attributable fraction formula (eTable 14 in Supplement). To do this, they utilized a risk evaluation ratio as a proxy measure of deaths directly attributable to these dietary components (eAppendix 1 in the Supplement). Essentially this calculates proportion of deaths that can directly be attributed to one dietary factor by comparing its current consumption distribution with its ideal distribution (using population attributable fraction formula; see Supplement).

REGARDS included data and uncertainties regarding (1) population demographics and diet as reported in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys; (2) estimated relationships between 10 foods and nutrients and heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes mortality from meta-analyses of prospective cohort and randomized clinical trials conducted using validity analyses; (3) observed US disease-specific cardiovascular and metabolic death rates obtained through National Center for Health Statistics; (4) optimal population intake distributions of 10 foods and nutrients as stated by literature.


Living in an environment dominated by fast food restaurants and processed foods makes making healthy food choices nearly impossible, which may contribute to many health problems including obesity and chronic illnesses such as asthma.

Asthma is an inflammatory lung condition that impairs breathing, making breathing difficult and making daily tasks such as walking more challenging. While asthma affects all age groups and races, low income populations and minority communities are especially prone to asthma attacks due to allergies, certain infections and environmental triggers like dusts, fumes and second/third hand smoke which may trigger or exacerbate attacks; medications like aspirin and NSAIDs may further exacerbate symptoms as well.

Studies have revealed that Western diets worsen asthma symptoms without playing any part in their creation. Indeed, diets high in saturated fat may exacerbate them further by altering gut microbiota composition and diminishing production of SCFAs (soluble short chain fatty acids) that inhibit inflammation.

Diets rich in fruits and vegetables may help prevent asthma or manage it more effectively, while getting adequate amounts of Vitamin D and E may lower risk factors for this disease.


Diet is one of the primary contributors to cancer risk in America. Excess calories from foods like fried and baked goods, salty snacks, sodas, sugary cereals, pizza and fast food all increase heart disease risk as well as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and weight gain – factors that increase cancer risks further.

American diets are lacking in fiber, an essential nutrient for maintaining a healthy digestive tract and managing blood sugar. Only 14% of Americans meet the USDA’s recommended intake while 95% don’t get enough through whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Low fiber consumption increases cancer risks as well as being linked to Parkinson’s disease due to an accumulation of a-synuclein proteins clumping.

Avoid processed meats that have been preserved through smoking, curing or chemical preservatives; such as hot dogs, bacon, ham and certain burgers. Eating too many processed meats increases your risk for stomach and bowel cancer.

Diet may be used by some cancer patients as an attempt to combat or avoid cancer; however, according to PDQ (Patient-Drug Information) cancer information summary no specific food or vitamin has been proven beneficial in terms of either prevention or cure of cancer. Eating healthily and keeping weight under control could reduce cancer risks significantly.

Nutrition Facts labels on food packages provide a valuable resource to assist people in making better choices for their health, yet most individuals still eat an unhealthy diet based on convenience, cost and taste. To change this trend, home cooking must be prioritized over convenience while education must focus on providing Americans with knowledge about creating meals using healthier ingredients and improving food availability and accessibility.

Mental Health

Mental health refers to our state of emotional and psychological well-being that affects how well we manage life’s challenges, maintain relationships, take responsibility for ourselves and others, make decisions, contribute to society and remain emotionally balanced. Mental wellbeing forms the basis for creativity, emotions, learning, hope and self-esteem – it’s key for both surviving illness – physical or otherwise – as well as recovery.

Mental illness can be just as debilitating as physical illness. Luckily, effective and affordable strategies exist to promote and safeguard mental wellbeing.

Eating healthily can play an essential role in supporting mental wellbeing. Opting for foods low in sugar, salt and fat can reduce your risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease and obesity; increasing omega-3s found in fish, nuts and seeds and probiotics found in fermented cultured and fermented foods like yogurt or kimchi may also help ease symptoms associated with mood disorders such as depression anxiety or ADHD.

Occupational therapy services provide valuable support for individuals facing difficulties with their mental health and well-being. Treatment options available can range from individual psychotherapy and cognitive behavior therapy sessions, group psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy sessions as well as consultation on how organizations and schools can implement mental health strategies into programmatic areas.

Mental health is determined by an intricate web of protective and risk factors at both local and global scales, including individual, family and community dynamics as well as those that impact groups or societies more broadly. Economic hardship exacerbates risks to entire communities while climate crisis increases their vulnerability; further compounded by social inequalities that limit access to education resources or supportive networks.