In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost 40 percent of American adults and nearly 20 percent of adolescents are obese — the highest rates ever recorded for the U.S.
In total, more than 70 percent of Americans are now either overweight or obese, meaning that an unhealthy weight has become the norm, with healthy-weight Americans — who have a BMI of less than 25 — now in the minority.
Yet, while we are a nation of overnourished individuals, many Americans are still malnourished. Despite the overabundance of calories (Americans eat an average of over 3,600 calories a day, according to a report by The Food and Agriculture Organization), many Americans don’t get enough healthy calories.
The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults consume 1.5-2 cups of fruit per day and 2-3 cups of vegetables per day.
However, about 90 percent of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, according to a 2017 CDC report. Specifically, just 12.2 percent of American adults are meeting the standard for fruit and 9.3 percent are meeting the standard for vegetables.
Fruits and veggies are nutrient-dense, meaning they are full of beneficial nutrients and minerals, while containing no added sugars or sodium. Every calorie they contain is very beneficial to the human body.
These healthy, natural foods are also packed with fiber, which aids digestion and can help treat digestive problems, while preventing constipation and potentially reducing cholesterol levels. Adequate fiber intake may also help protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
Since the vast majority of Americans are coming up short with their fruit and vegetable intake, many are also missing some key nutrients in their diets.
According to the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines, there are seven important nutrients in foods that most Americans aren’t getting in sufficient amounts:
Though each of the above can be found in the form of nutritional supplements, it’s always best to get all of our nutritional needs met through a well-rounded diet, anchored by fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. As the name suggests, supplements are supposed to supplement a healthy diet. Studies have found that they don’t offer as many health benefits as the nutrients naturally found in food. That said, most nutritionists agree that a multivitamin is an inexpensive insurance policy.
One macronutrient that most Americans eat in abundance is protein. Proteins are vital components of the human body, critical to the repair of tissue and the building of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Proteins also help to regulate hormone production and make us feel full.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines state that adults should take in a minimum of 10 percent of their daily calories from protein. Most Americans take in about 15 percent of their calories from protein. The healthy range for protein extends up to 35 percent of daily calories, according to the guidelines. The current 15 percent protein intake of the average American, combined with regular exercise, is sufficient to maintain muscle, according to Harvard Medical School.
Most of us get a significant portion of our protein in the form of animal proteins. However, we’d all be well-served to eat plant proteins more often. Good sources include beans (kidney, pinto, black or white beans), peas (split peas, chickpeas, hummus), soy beans (edamame) or soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers), as well as nuts and seeds. These are all naturally low in saturated fat and high in fiber.
The point is to get our proteins from a wide variety of sources and to make sure we’re getting what are known as “complete proteins.”
There are 20 different amino acids that can form a protein, nine of which the body can’t produce on its own. These are called essential amino acids—we need to eat them since we can’t make them ourselves. In order to be considered complete, a protein must contain all nine of these essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.
Examples of complete proteins include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt and soybeans.
Here are some examples of complete proteins that are also meatless: quinoa, buckwheat, lentils and rice & beans.
Vegans and vegetarians may have to work a little harder to consume complete proteins, but the following may be helpful: Every time legumes (such as beans, lentils and peanuts) are combined with grains like wheat, rice and corn, a complete protein is created. Peanut butter on whole wheat is perfect example. This snack provides all the essential amino acids, as well as some healthy fat.
That leads us to another vital macronutrient: fats, most especially healthy fats. These include: avocados/avocado oil, nuts (walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews and almonds), seeds (flax, sunflower, chia), nut butters, olives/extra virgin olive oil, coconut/coconut oil, and fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna).
Here are some simple recommendations:
Eat a salad every day and have vegetables with every meal. Snack on fruits. Eat more plant-based proteins and make sure to combine them so that they create complete proteins. Limit saturated fats and focus instead on healthier monounsaturated fats (olives, avocados, nuts, seeds) and healthy oils (olive-mono, avocado-mono, flaxseed-poly and grapeseed-poly oils) and polyunsaturated fats, the latter of which contain the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, flaxseed and walnuts, for example.