The American Diet: Characteristics, Food Habits & Guidelines Video

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  • 0:01 The American Diet
  • 0:46 Calorie Imbalance
  • 2:22 Too Many Nutrient-Poor Foods
  • 3:55 Too Few Nutrient-Dense Foods
  • 4:47 Dietary Guidelines for…
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

The American diet is characterized by a calorie imbalance, a high consumption of nutrient-poor foods and a low consumption of nutrient-dense foods. Learn about the food habits of Americans and the dietary guidelines designed to improve your health in this video lesson.

The American Diet

America is a big country with abundant farmland, ample acres for grazing cattle and a vast infrastructure that makes transporting foods from shore to shore easy. With all this access to fresh meats and produce, you would think America would be a lean and mean country full of individuals bounding with health. This is not the case.

Instead, we see a country where obesity, diabetes and heart disease are on the rise. This increase in chronic health conditions can be traced back to the poor food choices and habits that characterize the American diet. In this lesson, we will take a look at these defining characteristics and learn about guidelines set by the federal government to address the health concerns of Americans.

Calorie Imbalance

The American population is facing an epidemic of overweight and obesity. This is due to one of the defining characteristics of the American diet, which is a calorie imbalance, meaning Americans consume more calories than they expend. Calories come from the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. Some of these calories are burned in normal metabolic processes that keep us alive, such as breathing, controlling body temperature and maintaining the proper functioning of your organs. Additional calories can be expended through physical activity.

While calories burned through normal metabolic processes are beyond our control, we can control the number of calories we consume and our level of physical activity. If this equation of calories in versus calories out is out of balance, a person experiences a change in body weight. Body weight status is defined using the body mass index (BMI). This is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight.

The BMI is not a direct measure of the amount of fat on your body, but it can be used as a simple method of screening that places individuals into different weight categories. For example, you are considered normal weight if your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. If your BMI is below 18.5, then you are underweight. If it is between 25.0-29.9, your body weight status is categorized as overweight, and if it is 30.0 and above, you are categorized as obese.

Too Many Nutrient-Poor Foods

While some of the overweight and obesity epidemic can be blamed on a lack of physical activity, poor diet is the factor we will focus on for this lesson. This brings us to the next characteristic of the American diet, which is the fact that nutrient-poor foods are consumed in excess. Nutrient-poor foods lack vitamins and minerals, yet are high in calories and other unhealthy food components, including sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, refined grains and alcohol.

The fact that these foods are consumed more readily by Americans illustrates the fact that Americans are not the best at making nutritious food choices. For example, given a choice between a sugary cupcake with strawberry frosting and an actual strawberry, many Americans would go for the cupcake. And when pressed for time, a fast food burger and fries high in saturated and trans fats often wins out over a nutritious salad. Consuming excessive amounts of nutrient-poor foods leads to poor health.

For example, consuming excess sodium causes water to be retained everywhere in your body, including your bloodstream. This increases blood pressure, much like a hose with more water increases water pressure. Many processed foods and fast foods are high in sodium as well as trans fats, which are man-made fats that are not essential to your diet. Trans fats are linked to cardiovascular disease because they raise the level of LDLs, or bad cholesterol, in your body.

Too Few Nutrient-Dense Foods

Another characteristic of the American diet is that nutrient-dense foods are consumed in less than optimal amounts. Nutrient-dense foods contain a high number of vitamins and minerals with a relatively low number of calories. These nutrient-rich foods protect the body from disease while promoting overall good health. They are high-quality foods found within the five food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins and dairy.

Missing out on nutrient-dense foods means that Americans are missing out on key nutrients such as fiber, which is the tough part of the plant food that does not get digested or absorbed. Therefore, fiber passes through the digestive system intact, acting like a scrub brush providing a host of benefits. Perhaps fiber's best known health benefit is its ability to prevent constipation.

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