The American Way of Eating and Living with Our Neighbors

Udnie, Young American Girl“I don’t eat like an American,” says our good friend and wise dietitian Linn Steward. “I spend more on food than the average American, but I economize in other areas, like clothing, travel, and entertainment. So I figure that in the long run, it all evens out.” But as we contemplate the quintessential American holiday, we have some questions. Is there really an American way of eating?

The Lousy American Diet

From the food-is-medicine crowd, we heard recently that the average American diet went from an F to a D between 1999 and 2020. Dariush Mozaffarian is senior author of a recent study which leads to these grades. He says:

“There is good news. Americans are starting to hear the message about nutrition, and some companies and restaurants are starting to make healthier products. It’s a little bit of an improvement.

“We have stalled as a nation, and that does not bode well for our health. If I was grading America on its diet, I’d give it a D – just up from an F.”

This continues a long tradition of stereotyping the American diet as heavy with red meat, refined grains, sugar, salt, and fat. Burgers, fries, and sodas. Lots of nasty ultra-processed foods.

Diversity and Disparity

But the truth is more granular than those stereotypes suggest. And if you ask Grubhub, the number one most popular food in America is not the stereotypical cheeseburger. It is the burrito bowl.

Such generalizations and rankings obscure the reality of great diversity in American eating patterns. While some people eat a whole lot of red meat, many others are pursuing vegetarian or vegan styles of eating. America is a chaotic dietary scene where foods from many cultures come together in patterns that defy generalizations.

One thing is clear, though. America is the developed nation with the greatest gap between rich and poor of any developed nation in the world. If many Americans depend on cheap ultra-processed foods to feed their families, it is worth remembering this may be largely due to the meager financial resources they have.

Glass Houses

Hectoring by academics and privileged policymakers directed at Americans with lousy diets does not help. In fact, it serves to push us apart. Disparities in how healthfully we eat are, at least in part, a function of disparities in how we live and the dignity granted to some but not to others.

For those living in glass houses of privilege, casting stones at the poor lifestyles of other persons seems unwise.

Click here Mozaffarian’s paper on American diets and here for further perspective.

Udnie, Young American Girl, painting by Francis Picabia / Wikimedia Commons

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July 4, 2024