Unfortunately the Standard American Diet, also known as “SAD,” is, well, pretty sad. Over the last 100 years, the majority of Americans have gone from eating “normal” portions and home-cooked whole foods (after all, the processed foods we see lining store shelves today didn’t’ exist), to consuming high levels of over-processed simple carbohydrates and refined sugars. With this shift in eating habits, there's been a huge increase in diet-related chronic diseases, which represent the largest cause of obesity and death.
Luckily improving the situation could be pretty easy: Eat more whole, unrefined foods—fruits, veggies, whole grains, and other natural products that go through little processing.
What’s the Deal?
Unrefined foods—fruits, veggies, grains, and other natural products that go through little to no processing—provide high levels of antioxidants and other nutrients (since they arrive to you in the form nature intended). They’re also nutrient-dense, meaning they pack in beneficial nutrients and minerals and contain no added sugars, starches, or sodium, making every calorie worth something very useful for the body.
These healthy, natural foods are packed with essential nutrients such as potassium and fiber, which can protect against chronic diseases, aid in digestion, and even improve muscle development and physical performance. 1 According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the average American diet lacks the appropriate intake of these powerful nutrients (and a few others) and the under consumption of potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D has become a ‘public health concern.’ Adding these nutrients to your diet (or making sure you’re getting enough of them) can help your body recover from exercise better, improve digestion, and just be healthier overall.
Your Action Plan
Why We Need It: Potassium is one nutrient we literally cannot live without (seriously, it keeps our hearts beating). Increasing potassium consumption has been linked to lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of osteoporosis, as well as decreasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. 2 The body also needs potassium to help regulate water balance and to keep the nervous system and our muscles functioning properly. Not consuming enough potassium can lead to some pretty uncomfortable results such as muscle cramps, constipation, and fatigue.
Why We Miss It: The recommended intake of potassium for adults is 4,700mg per day, but currently only 56 percent of American adults reach this goal. One big reason why is that sodium often takes the place of nutrients like potassium in processed foods like cheese, packaged meats, fast food, and pastries.
How to Get It: 1 small baked potato with skin (738mg), 1 medium-sized banana (422mg), 1 cup cooked spinach (740mg), 1/2 cup cooked beets (259mg)
Or try this easy potassium-rich smoothie recipe: Blend ½ cup carrot juice (344mg), ½ cup orange juice (248mg), 1 medium banana (422mg), and ½ cup ice for a snack or breakfast containing 1,014 mg of potassium (and a healthy dose of vitamin C).
Why We Need It: Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate that moves throughout our bodies, helping promote digestion and prevent constipation, as well as potentially reducing cholesterol levels.3 There are two types of dietary fiber: Soluble fiber can help lower glucose and cholesterol levels in the blood, while insoluble fiber helps food move through the digestive system properly. Consuming enough soluble fiber (found in oats, beans, lentils, and some fruits) can reduce risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and protect the arteries, while the consumption of insoluble fiber (whole-wheat, brown rice, legumes, vegetables) is recommend to help treat digestive problems. 45 ((Dietary fiber for the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a meta-analysis. Post, R.E., Mainous, A.G., King, D.E, et all. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. 2012 Jan-Feb; 25(1):16-23))
Why We Miss It: The recommended daily intake of dietary fiber is 25g per day for women and 38g per day for men, but according to a 2010 report, only 40 percent of Americans reach the recommended intake (more recent estimates decreases the number to only three percent). 6 Dietary fiber isn’t found in processed grains (like white flour), so anyone following a “typical American diet,” which is typically high in processed grains that have been stripped of their fiber and low in whole grains, are missing out.
How to Get It: ½ cup black beans (6.1g), 1 medium pear (5.5g), ½ cup fresh raspberries (4g), 1 medium sweet potato baked with skin (3.8g)
Try this simple, fiber-rich lunch recipe: Roast ½ cup artichoke hearts (7.2g), ½ cup Brussels sprouts (2g), and ¼ cup sliced parsnips (1.4g) for a delicious dish that provides almost half of the recommended daily intake of fiber. Or, check out our other high-fiber recipes.
Why We Need It: Calcium is an important nutrient that helps maintain healthy bones, assists in nerve transmission, and helps our blood clot. 7 Our bodies need a lot of calcium to properly function (it’s the most abundant mineral in the body) but our bodies also doesn’t naturally produce the element, meaning we need to get all we need from our food (and supplements). Not getting enough calcium can lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.
Why We Miss It: Seventy-five percent of Americans consume the daily recommended intake of calcium of 1,000mg per day for adult men and women—that’s not bad! And most Americans consume their calcium through dairy and dairy byproducts. However particular groups (including young adults, young women, and those over 51) require a higher dose of calcium, so even if they meet the general recommendation of 1,000mg per day and they’re often still not getting enough. 89
How to Get It: 1 cup collard greens (357mg), ¼ cup diced Swiss cheese (261mg), 1 cup 2% nonfat milk (293mg)
Want to get some more calcium in your diet? Consider whipping up an omelet with 2 large eggs (56mg), one slice of monterey cheese (209mg), and ¼ cup kale (25mg).
4. Vitamin D
Why We Need It: Vitamin D is special: It’s the only vitamin we can both consume (by eating a variety of whole foods) and make ourselves—our bodies create Vitamin D in the form of a hormone when we process sunlight. In addition to protecting our bones, vitamin D is a powerful player in regulating cell growth, and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. 10 Even more, vitamin D helps out body maintain the correct levels of calcium. Vitamin D is an important nutrient for athletes too—it can reduce inflammation and pain, reduce the risk of fractures, and increase muscle protein. 11 . In addition to helping athletes perform, vitamin D can help reduce the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure 12
Why We Miss It: The recommended daily amount of Vitamin D for men and women is 18mcg, but only 28 percent of Americans meet this goal. The major dietary source of vitamin D for many Americans is milk (milk is fortified up to 25mcg of vitamin D per ounce). However since most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of calcium (which is most commonly consumed through milk), the nation falls behind in vitamin D consumption too.
How to Get It: 3oz light canned tuna in water (3.8mcg), 1 cup fortified milk (2.9mcg), 1 cup fortified orange juice (3.4mcg)
Consider introducing more fish—such as stockeye salmon (19.8mcg per 3oz)—to your diet. A single fillet can easily meet the daily requirement!
Why We Need It: We couldn’t live long without iron: It’s an essential protein building block, involved in everything from carrying oxygen through the body to building muscles. Not getting enough of this element can cause fatigue (also known as anemia), memory loss, muscle loss, and difficulties regulating body temperature.
Why We Miss It: The recommended daily intake of iron for adult women is 18mg daily and 8mg for men. Women are more likely than men to suffer from iron deficiency (sorry, ladies), since women between ages 18 and 50 require more of the nutrient. Not getting enough iron can be a problem for those with particular diets like vegans and vegetarians. Iron from meat, poultry, and fish is absorbed two to three times more efficiently than iron from plants (how much iron your body absorbs from plants also depends on other foods eaten at the same time).
How to Get It: 10 clams (2.62mg), ½ cup edamame (2.25mg), ½ cup lentils (3.3mg), 4oz beef sirloin steak (2.4mg), 1 cup cooked broccoli (1.5mg)
Looking for an iron boosting snack? Consider munching on ¼ cup cashews (2mg) and ¼ cup dried apricots (1.9mg) to increase your daily iron intake.
*Unless otherwise noted, all nutrition information above came from Health.gov.
Originally posted February 2014. Updated October 2015.
A diet high in whole and unrefined foods favorably alters lipids, antioxidant defenses, and colon function. Bruce, B., Spiller, G.A., Klevay, L.M.,et.all. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2000 Feb;19(1):61-7
Beneficial effects of potassium on human health. He, F.J., MacGregor, G.A. Blood Pressure Unit, Cardiac and Vascular Sciences, St George’s, University of London, UK. Physiologia Plantarum, 2008 Aug;133(4):725-35
Dietary advice for reducing cardiovascular risk. Rees K, Dyakova M, Wilson N, et al. Cochrane Database System Review, 2013 Dec 6:12:CD002128.
Protective effect of fruits and vegetables on development of stroke in men. Gillman, M.W., Cupples, L.A, Gagnon, D., et.all. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 1995 Apr 12; 273(14):1113-7
Intakes of whole grains, bran, and germ and the risk of coronary heart disease in men. Jensen, M.K., Koh-Banerjee, P., Hu, F.B., et all. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004 Dec; 80(6):1492-9
Filling America's fiber intake gap: summary of a roundtable to probe realistic solutions with a focus on grain-based foods. Clemens, R., Kranz, S., Mobley, A.R., et.all. Journal of Nutrition. 2012 Jul; 142(7):1390S-401S
Calcium intake and its relationship with adiposity and insulin resistance in post-pubertal adolescents. dos Santo, L.C., de Pádua Cintra, .I, Fisberg, M., et all. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2008 Apr;21(2):109-16
Calcium intake in the United States from dietary and supplemental sources across adult age groups: new estimates from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2006. Mangano, K.M., Walsh, S.J., Insogna, K.L., et.all. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2011 May;111(5):687-95
Calcium intake and its relationship with adiposity and insulin resistance in post-pubertal adolescents. dos Santos, L.C., de Pádua Cintra, I., Fisberg, M. et.all. Journal Human Nutritional and Dietetics. 2008 Apr;21(2):109-16
Vitamin D and cardiovascular disease. Gouni-Berthold, I., Krone, W., Berthold, H.K. Current Vascular Pharmacology. 2009 Jul;7(3):414-22
Sports Health Benefits of Vitamin D. Shuler, F.D., Wingate, M.K., Moore, G.H., et all. Sports Health, 2012 Nov;4(6):496-501
Prevalence and correlates of vitamin D deficiency in US adults. Forrest, K.Y., Stuhldreher, W.L. Nutrition Research. 2011 Jan; 31(1):48-54