People are drinking less soda than they used to. But in nearly every other way, the typical American diet hasn’t improved in a very long time.
“If you look at how we’re eating—the quality of our diets—it’s been pretty constant over a number of decades,” says Dr. Stephen Juraschek, an internist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Americans still eat too much red meat, too many refined grains and too much protein. “The average American already consumes more than enough protein, but people are still seeking out more,” says Wendy Dahl, an associate professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Florida.
Meanwhile, the popularity of anti-grain and low-carb diets has pushed people away from healthy sources of fiber—namely foods like fruits and whole grains, Dahl says. The vast majority of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, despite decades of research showing that these and other fiber-rich foods are strongly associated with improved health and longevity. “There’s a lot of debate among nutrition experts about things like ketogenic diets and low-carbohydrate versus low-fat diets, but if you get everyone in a room, no one is advocating for unhealthy refined grains or sugar or unhealthy processed meats,” Juraschek says.
So why do we keep eating this junk? In a word: convenience. Roughly half of all Americans hate to cook, and just 10% love it, according to recent research appearing in Harvard Business Review. But if you’re eating out all the time, it’s really difficult to eat well. Some restaurants are required to publish their nutrition data and ingredient lists, but few people spend time examining that information before ordering, Juraschek says. Even when they do consider an item’s calorie count, that’s only a minor component when it comes to the overall health effects of a meal. Restaurant food tends to be loaded with salt and additives—stuff that makes it taste good and that won’t inflate its calorie count, but that can still sabotage your health goals, he says.
That’s why if you want to eat healthier, the first and most important change you should make is to start cooking your own meals from scratch. “Home-prepared meals are a key feature of healthy eating,” Juraschek says. “The only time you have agency over what you’re eating is when you’re doing the purchasing and prep.”
Making your own meals requires time and elbow grease. But while it’s nearly impossible to eat healthy if you’re always eating out, experts agree it’s difficult to eat poorly if you’re cooking for yourself and starting with whole food ingredients. Most of our diet problems would be solved if we just ate “real foods” instead of packaged and heavily processed products, says Dr. Robert Lustig, professor emeritus of pediatrics and endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Along with improving your health, you’ll likely save a ton of money by making your own meals at home. While the cost of dining out keeps going up, the price of meals prepared at home has declined.
If the idea of buying and cooking enough food for three daily meals (plus snacks) seems too daunting considering your busy schedule, planning ahead and preparing multiple meals at once may be a solution. This sort of meal prep has become a social media phenomenon, and a few hours of thoughtful planning and prepping on a Sunday (combined with a lot of freezer-safe Tupperware) can yield a whole workweek’s worth of home-cooked meals.
If you’re wondering what to prepare, put your energy into vegetable-heavy dishes. “Most Americans eat just 1.8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day,” Juraschek says. A healthy diet should contain at least seven to nine daily servings. “People realize fruits and vegetables are healthy, but they don’t realize how little of them they’re eating,” he adds. He points out that many people tend to make their protein portions too large in home-cooked meals, while skimping on vegetables.
So if you’re serious about eating healthy, forget about balancing your macros or trying intermittent fasting. Those are diet refinements you can consider down the road. Your number-one goal should be to find ways to prepare your own meals from whole-food ingredients. After you’ve committed to cooking, pack those meals with more fruits and vegetables.
Make those moves, and you’ll be far ahead of most Americans when it comes to eating healthy.