What’s behind America’s poor diet and chronic health problems?

Hint: Your Thanksgiving feast is not the problem

At Thanksgiving, our thoughts often turn to cooking and eating. And for some of us, that’s accompanied by groaning vows to never eat so much again.

I thought about this when I saw a new report indicating that America’s poor diet isn’t just bad for our health, but can actually be considered a threat to national security. That’s because diet-related illnesses are seriously impacting U.S. military readiness.

The report also concludes that our poor food choices are an economic disaster, creating tremendous strains on worker productivity, healthcare spending, government budgets, and U.S. financial competitiveness with other countries.

Now, that might tempt some to think that Thanksgiving-type meals are the kind of diet problem the report’s authors are talking about. But it’s important to understand what a poor diet really is—and isn’t.

Because truthfully, it’s not about overeating once in a while. And it’s definitely not about the types of whole foods that typically grace a holiday dinner table.

In fact, Americans would be much healthier if they regularly ate the balanced variety of whole foods typically represented on a Thanksgiving spread—including full-fat dairy, meat, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Unfortunately, for far too many people, these kinds of healthy, home-cooked meals appear only at the holiday table…a few times a year. Meaning most of the rest of the year is packed with fast foods, processed foods, and packaged junk foods. And that’s where the true tragedy lies…

Too many myths have been promulgated trying to point the finger at supposedly “bad” foods such as dairy, eggs, meat, and even certain kinds of seafood—or supposedly “bad” nutrients like cholesterol, saturated fats, and sodium.

But the real science shows American’s true diet woes are about something else entirely…

Millions of lives and billions of dollars lost because of poor diets

The new report I mentioned above was published in July in one of my favorite sources, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN).1 In the report, scientists from the Federal Nutrition Research Advisory Group wrote that poor nutrition is now the leading cause of illness in the U.S.

In fact, it stated that more than half a million American deaths per year can be attributed to poor diet. This includes fatalities due to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, many cancers, and other diseases linked to obesity.

Alarmingly, the report found that 46 percent of all adults have an overall poor quality diet. The authors equate a “good” diet with the U.S nutritional guidelines, which, as I’ve often noted, are also woefully inadequate when it comes to foods like meat, dairy, and eggs. But the guidelines are certainly more nutritious than the “standard American diet”—which is appropriately abbreviated as SAD.

The report also notes that a whopping 56 percent of American children have poor diets. This leads to a vicious cycle of poor school performance, lower work productivity, increased risk of chronic diseases, and higher health costs for everybody.

Overall, the report notes that about 85 percent of current healthcare spending in the U.S. is related to management of diet-related chronic diseases. The $160 billion spent each year to treat diabetes alone is, ironically, more than the annual budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Beyond direct health consequences and costs, the report also found that diet-related illnesses are harming U.S. military readiness, and seriously impacting the budgets of the  Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs.

In fact, 71 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 don’t medically qualify for military service. And obesity is the biggest disqualifying factor, according to a 2018 study cited in the AJCN report.

On the other end of the scale, so to speak, I well remember the challenges with keeping active-duty military sufficiently fit and healthy to continue qualifying for service. When I was at Walter Reed during the 1990s, I worked with the Pentagon’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs to design and implement health education programs for middle-aged members of the military. But we never imagined this would also be a problem for people under the age of 25!

The best diet on the planet

Of course, the science on human diet and nutrition has long been deficient in terms of its biological theory, understanding of basic principles, scientific methodology, and understanding of research results.

As I often report, nutritional science is treated as a second-class citizen among medical researchers, with limited, poor dietary measurements in terms of accuracy and precision. These deficiencies are because the reins were handed to (or taken by) statisticians to lead the efforts at federal research institutions.

The AJCN report tacitly recognizes these federal shortcomings. It not only makes the ritual request for more federal funding, but also calls for reforming, reorganizing, and coordinating the current budgets for research on human diet and nutrition.

One of the report authors, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, called for a “major national effort to address current nutrition challenges, generating the critical science to rapidly treat and prevent diet-related diseases, improve health equity, increase population resistance to COVID-19 and future pandemics, and drive fundamental and translational discoveries for better lives.”

It’s a lofty goal, with no guarantee of success. And even if more money and effort is devoted to research on human diet and nutrition, the study results could be years away.

And could researchers really find anything different than what so many studies have shown for decades—that a balanced, Mediterranean-style diet is the single best way to promote health and lower the risk of chronic, deadly, expensive diseases?

In my view, you don’t need to wait for more reports or research to improve your diet today. Simply follow a Mediterranean eating plan with plenty of organic fruits and vegetables, a couple servings of full-fat dairy each day, and regular consumption of grass-fed and -finished meat and wild-caught fish and seafood. (And don’t forget Mediterranean diet staples like olive oil, nuts and seeds, and moderate amounts of wine!)

Chances are, most—if not all—of these whole foods will make an appearance on your Thanksgiving table. So indulge in nature’s healthful bounty…not only during this holiday season, but year-round.


“Strengthening national nutrition research: rationale and options for a new coordinated federal research effort and authority,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 112, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 721–769.