The New American Diet

Dr. ThornburgThe American diet has changed dramatically over the last few generations. Few people remember the days when their mothers worked for hours each day to prepare sit-down meals so that the whole family could eat together. Back then, dinners across America consisted of meat, potatoes and freshly cooked or tinned vegetables. Dessert was served only on special occasions. People drank water with their meals. Now days, the food consumed at any meal is more likely to be determined by convenience and cost than considerations of nutritional value. Many families now depend on others to prepare their food. Dinner may be served though a drive-up window or boxed from the deli counter at the local supermarket.

Millions of Americans have come to enjoy the fast food menu based on sugar, salt and fat, constituents that stimulate pleasure centers in the brain. Food products that sell well have been carefully tested in focus groups for "curb appeal." The high calorie meal along with the sugary drink becomes a periodic pleasure sought by many throughout the day. For people who live in economically deprived areas, a nutrition deprived but satisfying meal becomes a relatively inexpensive respite from the pain and stress of daily living without the means to make ends meet. People across all economic strata now find themselves overweight and "hooked" on food that provides more daily calories than they burn. Across the past three generations, Americans of all walks have continuously added fat to their bodies.

Because of increasingly poor diets, we Americans are not the same people we were three generations ago. We are now much more likely to suffer from one or more chronic diseases as we age. Scientific studies now inform us that not only is good nutrition important for maintaining our health as adults, but our health is much more determined by the flow of nutrient molecules from our mothers into our bodies before we were born. Being born with a strong healthy body is the most powerful protection against poor health over a person's entire life. As more women carrying excess weight are bearing children, increasing numbers of offspring now carry very high risks for obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease as they age.

Thus we find ourselves in a difficult economic situation. The dominant food industries prepare food that millions of Americans like to eat but without attention to its effects on our health. We buy it and we eat it. As a result, every day Americans suffer from high calorie malnutrition, the consequence of eating excess calories without nutrients. Gaining weight leads to increased medical costs. The cost of health care in the USA is now higher than anywhere in the world, while by any objective standard, our health is the worst among western countries.

Here is the chain of events. Millions of people eat unhealthy diets, put on excess weight and become less active. As a consequence, their health worsens, their need for medical care increases, expensive drugs and procedures become the standard of care, medical costs skyrocket.

Many health experts are now asking, what should we do to reverse this downward spiral in American health? All agree that change will not be easy. Health reformers have discovered that many consumers become angry at the suggestion that they should avoid eating their favorite processed foods and eat "healthy" foods instead. "Do-gooders have no right to tell a person what to eat," some consumers say.

Medical scientists in the Moore Institute recognize that many people do not realize the seriousness of our current situation. The financial pressures that accompany poor health will continue to exert pressure on the American economy. While it is clear that other factors like physical exercise and social stresses contribute greatly to increases in obesity and disease rates, we know that unless we change the diets of young men and women who will parent the next generation, all attempts at improving the health of Americans will fail. At the Moore Institute we are dedicated to providing reliable information regarding the role of diet in the health of our nation. We will work to find real solutions to the serious health conditions that we face. We hope that you will help us spread the word.

Kent Thornburg
August 2012

Kent L. Thornburg, Ph.D.
Interim Director, OHSU Moore Institute
M. Lowell Edwards Chair for Research
Professor and Associate Chief for Research, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine
Director, Heart Research Center