Global Costs of the Standard American Diet

November 11, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

The way most Americans eat today is called the Standard American Diet. The acronym, SAD, could not be more appropriate. The SAD features toxic overdoses of sodium and sugar, unnatural preservatives, and health-bending chemical cocktails that are more like poisons than food. Sadly, new research shows that it’s not just Americans who inflict a SAD-like diet on themselves.

Wait—eating is more dangerous than smoking, drinking, drugs, and unsafe sex?

Yes, it’s that serious. The mind-boggling truth is that the SAD is worse. Poor diet is now the biggest threat to health—everywhere.

“If you look at all the diet-related risk factors for health, they outweigh…all of the other risk factors combined,” says Lawrence Haddad, an author of the new report.

And it doesn’t matter if you live in a rich country or a poor country.

When good news turns bad

Haddad’s and related reports give us this good news:

  • The percentage of hungry people in the world compared to 1990 has been cut in half, from 20 percent to 10 percent
  • The number of stunted children, a sign of chronic malnutrition, has fallen from 39.6 percent to 23.8 percent.


Well, that’s incredible! Despite famine, drought, pestilence, politics, and every other threat, there’s enough food available, even in poor countries—to have reduced deaths by hunger.

The countless efforts of hardworking, well-meaning people and institutions to eliminate hunger are working.

A harrowing “however”

But another note of SADness ends that brief celebration.

Sales of SAD-like processed foods are growing faster in developing countries than anywhere else.

People working their way out of starvation-level poverty, who can afford more food—spend more money on the worst kinds of food—processed, preserved, over-sugared, over-salted foods, depleted of vitamins, minerals, protein, and other essential nutrients.


The polar opposite of what you get from natural, organic, local foods (which are unfortunately, cost-prohibitive to so many people).


And the consequences are more dire than most people realize.

Imagine a half-obese/overweight world

The number of overweight and obese people is skyrocketing worldwide. If there are no significant changes in the trendlines, it’s estimated there will be as many as 3.28 billion overweight and obese people by 2030—more than double the 1.33 billion in 2005.

That’s nearly half of the world’s adult population. Close your eyes and imagine a world where every other person you meet is obese or overweight.

That’s the forecast.

Even worse, the vast majority of SAD-type health problems is expected to be in low- and middle-income countries, where health care is less than optimal, in both remote rural areas and overcrowded cities.

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  • In China, for example, the population of overweight and obese adults is projected to rise to more than 50 percent by 2030
  • In Nigeria, the number of adults with diabetes is projected to double between 2011 and 2030, from 3.1 million to 6.1 million.

The majority of similarly developing countries must also deal with the added threats of malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, infectious disease, and an undereducated populace. Throw these into the mix and it’s estimated that global GDP will be hit with an annual loss of 10 percent due to diet-related illnesses.

An epic global food fight

Alarmingly, data show the cost of healthy foods rising in most countries. At the same time, SAD-type food is becoming cheaper and easier to buy. I’d lay the blame on Big Food, which always finds a way to manufacture and distribute its non-foods more economically.

Jessica Fanzo, a nutrition and diet expert at Johns Hopkins University, saw this borne out in a remote farming town in Kenya. Poor crop yields there and in neighboring towns mean healthy foods are scarce. Poor roads exacerbate the problem—unless you’re Big Food with a Big Truck. That’s why Fanzo found soda easier to buy there than fresh fruits and vegetables. Even nutritious lentils and other pulses with long shelf-lives were hard to get.

What’s new? When it’s Big Food vs local little guy, guess who wins?

And guess what happens over time?

Farmer flight

Hand in hand, globalization and urbanization are literally changing the landscape in dozens of countries.

As their small farms become marginalized, and their local clientele opts for Big Food’s cheap and ready choices, many farmers are fleeing to rapidly growing cities, where overcrowding, lack of jobs, and poor health care is what poor people get.

When jobs and money are scarce, the cheapest, most convenient food you can find is what you’ll buy.

Sad, but not hopeless

It’s no surprise that ways to turn these trends around are plentiful. Though it often seems just the opposite, the world is full of compassionate, imaginative people.

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition’s report sums up the goal perfectly:

“… policymakers need to invest in … repositioning food systems from feeding people to nourishing people.’

So … what if, for example, governments redirected some funding for rice and grain staples toward helping farmers diversify into growing and distributing more healthy crops like pulses, vegetables, and fruits?

What if a coordinated program of educational outreach combined with crop supply line improvements taught consumers to prefer healthy choices—that would be more accessible, thanks to better roads?

The win-win solutions on the table are there to be implemented.

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition’s conclusion underscores the importance of getting this right:

“Only a response on the scale and commitment used to tackle HIV/AIDS and malaria will be sufficient to meet the challenge, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.”

I can only hope that what’s happening in rich countries—where SAD-type habits are slowly giving way to healthier options, inspired and guided by the Mediterranean Diet—will replay on the global scale.

If consumers, governments, and producers can all get it through their heads that we’re heading toward the edge of a cliff, it’s not too late to change direction.


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