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Is your diet sad? | Image shows French fries.

Is Your Diet SAD?

nutrition Jan 27, 2022

By Carolyn Denton, MA, LN

Even with the tremendous amount of money spent on health, care the “health” of our nation continues to slip. Obesity, type II diabetes and other chronic diseases are all on the rise.

Increasingly, the Standard American Diet…the SAD diet, is being blamed. More than ever, Americans are eating refined, processed, packaged, salty, artificial diets, sadly lacking in nutrients. The SAD diet, also known as the western diet, is low in fat but high in sugar and excessively high in calories. Since the 1950’s, average daily caloric intake has risen from 1,900 to 2,661 calories.

The SAD diet includes refined grains, refined sugars and refined oils. The term refined means “having unwanted elements removed… a pure state. Elegant in appearance or taste”. The SAD diet is anything but pure and elegant. Many important nutrients present in whole foods are removed in the refining process. When whole wheat is processed, for example, 75% of the vitamins and minerals and 95% of the fiber are lost. Foods in their natural state are pure, and Mother Nature has packaging that is simply elegant in appearance and taste.

In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan famously summarized his approach to diet in just seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” As Mr. Pollan puts it, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

It would seem that diet recommendations should be that simple. Indeed, under the guidance of our mothers came two simple pieces of advice, “eat your vegetables” and “don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach”. We are well-educated and generally sensible as a society and yet a recent survey conducted by the USDA found less than 10% of Americans ate even the minimum of “five a day” for fruits and vegetables. And portions tend to be “supersized”.

In 1826 Anthelme Brillat-Savarin stated” Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”. This statement rings true even today. We are not only developing more chronic disease but also living less fully day-to-day; sleep is poor, mood is depressed and energy is low.

In terms of health, 4 of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States are linked to this SAD, western diet. And sadly, as people in Asian and Mediterranean countries have become more westernized they too have an increased risk of the same diseases.

The Standard American Diet became the norm in part due to lifestyle. Eating fast, processed foods, often away from home, is easy in our fast paced lives. Our convenient, fast food diets do more than rob us of nutrients, however. This SAD diet also removes us from an equally important nourishment…the pleasures of sharing a delicious meal with family and friends.

While data continues to draw attention to the harmful effects of a SAD diet, on the other side of the table is evidence supporting a healthy diet. Adding adequate amounts of nutrient dense foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and fiber have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

The HAPPY Diet, if you will, is described below.


Healthful and nourishing. Foods that are healthful and “pure” contain nutrients that provide information to the body about how it will behave. Each nutrient has very specific jobs to do in the body. Without the nutrient trigger, functions dependent upon that nutrient will fail. By eating foods that are minimally processed, in a state closest to how it was grown, messages remain intact allowing the body to work the way it was designed. A healthful and nourishing diet focuses on foods to include rather than foods to exclude. Having said that, however, there are a few no’s. No high fructose corn syrup. No hydrogenated oils. No preservatives. No dyes. No artificial flavor. These contain negative information for the body resulting in faulty function.


Array of color: In addition to vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables contain beneficial phytonutrients. A plant must be able to protect itself from disease and harm. But a plant is planted, unable to “flee or fight”. A phytonutrient is a compound in plants that serves as the plant’s protection. Once consumed these phytonutrients have the same effect in our bodies. They protect us from disease. There are thousands of phytonutrients that have been identified. The predominant phytonutrient in a food is indicated by its color…dark green, light green, red, yellow, orange and purple. If you eat a variety of plants, with a variety of color you will be sure to get a variety of these powerful nutrients.


Planned: Eating at home provides more nutrition with less expense. Meals don’t have to take a lot of time to be healthful and delicious. By following these three simple steps—plan, purchase, prepare—one can make meals easily and efficiently while rediscovering the joy of eating at home, fast. Determine which days have more time for meal preparation. Taking time constraints into account, draw up some simple menus. Make extra servings so that leftover dinner becomes tomorrow’s lunch. Planning allows you to cook for yourself, leaving nothing to chance…because you are worth it.


Portioned: Serving size is of utmost importance in a HAPPY diet. A serving should be what fits in the palm of your hand (no stacking) Portions will be satisfying if there is a mixture of flavors and if eaten slowly so you notice no longer being hungry. In the Blue Zones, a best selling book about aging and longevity throughout the world, author Dan Buettner describes an Okinawan cultural habit of calorie control called hara hachi bu, which means eat only until you are 80% full. Finally for portion control, “set the table”. Eat your meals while sitting at a table, not at a desk, in the car or in front of a television. If you are not paying attention you may not notice how much you are eating.


Yummy flavors. (I know… yummy?) You can alter the flavor of a grain, vegetable or protein by simply changing the seasonings. There are common spices and herbs used in different cuisines:

  • Italian: basil, fennel, onion, parsley, marjoram, bay leaves, garlic, oregano and rosemary.
  • French: thyme, shallots, tarragon, chives, savory, nutmeg, black pepper and bay leaves.
  • Mexican; chile peppers, cilantro, cumin, onions, paprika, lime, onion and oregano.
  • Chinese: gingerroot, green onion, sesame oil, sesame seeds and soy sauce.
  • Indian: curry powder, turmeric, cayenne pepper, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon and cumin.

And yes, a HAPPY diet also includes dessert. Just be sure to eat it at the end of a meal rich with flavors, vegetables, fat and protein so it can be part of a balanced meal and not a stand-alone rush of sugar.

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This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice and is not a replacement for advice and treatment from a medical professional. Consult your doctor or other qualified health professional before beginning any diet change, supplement, or lifestyle program. See our terms for more information.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call the NAMI HelpLine: 1-800-950-6264 available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET. OR text "HelpLine" to 62640 or email NAMI at [email protected]. Visit NAMI for more. You can also call or text SAMHSA at 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.