Standard American Diet: 10 Foods Where Americans Get Their Calories

The Standard American Diet (SAD)

Calorie Rich and Processed (CRAP) is the standard American Diet (SAD).  So most people eat CRAP SAD.  So what do most Americans eat in 2017? Turns out we are a boring lot. Instead of the CRAP SAD, we in culinary medicine want you to change to a Nutrient Dense diet, full of great foods.

Highly Processed Grain Desserts

They really are just dessert in a bar

They really are just dessert in a bar

While many would recognize cakes, cookies, pastries, and donuts as a dessert, many don’t realize that granola falls into the same class as a dessert, and a calorie bomb. I know, you have the perfect recipe for a great granola, but most Americans are getting their calories from these highly processed grain desserts.

What is a good dessert? How about some simple fruit. It is sweet, delicious, and you will be getting in one of your points for the Mediterranean Diet.

Need a snack instead of a cookie? Consider nuts or fruit.  Healthy, lots of nutrients, and far fewer calories.

Most Breads
White Bread

The classic bread. It is a source of a lot of calories for people. Most of the breads sold in the United States are highly processed yeast flour. There are some great breads out there – whole wheat, but be careful. There is no definition of a “whole grain” in the United States. Still, as a source of calories, this can add up quickly.  When some people give up breads and sweets they find that they can lose a lot of weight.  They blame it on all bread, or that maybe we should eat like a caveman. Whole grains are healthy, and you can make some good choices, but highly processed carbohydrates, like simple white bread isn’t a great choice and there is plenty of evidence this can increase risk of heart disease.


Chicken and the Dishes You Put It In

chick-fil-a nuggets

Yes you might think that the chicken you get from Chick-Fil-A is healthy, but it is a calorie bomb. Chicken nuggets, from wherever, chicken tacos, chicken is a major source of calories in the U.S. Ever notice how people try to tell you that their food is better? Processed chicken is often served with a lot of other foods that just don’t make it a great choice.  That Subway Chicken is often chicken parts, like the nuggets, put together with soy protein and a lot of salt. To be healthy the Mediterranean Diet recommends no more than 3-4 ounces of meat per day (that includes chicken and beef and pork and lamb.

Liquid Calories: from Soda to Coffee

starbucks unicorn frap
Liquid calories.  Soda is still the number one source of liquid calories in the United States, but energy drinks and those fancy coffee drinks are common additions to that calorie budget.  A simple cup of coffee is about 5 calories.  But go to your favorite drive through and get a latte and additions and you can get 300,400, even up to 700 calories in a single drink.

Those energy drinks- they also contain a lot of calories. So while you may feel smug when you pass up the sodas, remember when you are in line to pick up your morning rush, you are adding a lot of calories that you don’t need or want.


PizzaWho doesn’t love great pizza? Most of America finds pizza to be a frequent meal, and it is filled with calories. Yes, pizza is delicious – unless you ask Simon Majumdar who thinks it tastes like “snot on toast.” I love pizza too- but it has a lot of calories. A single slice has about 300 calories, and who can eat just one?

Pizza as dinner has few nutrients, and lots of calories. Making healthy dinners is fairly simple – no need to order pizza. Just check out my recipe for some great halibut (click here).



WineWhile some wine or a modest amount of alcohol can have healthy benefits, more than a drink a night is more than anyone needs. One five ounce pour, or one shot of a spirit, or one beer may be therapeutic, but more is an abuse on your body. When we eat or drink, we do so to nourish our bodies, and alcohol is the ultimate “empty calorie.” Some of the things in wine or beer can be healthy, but the alcohol is not a nutrient the body needs.




PastaIt seems like all of America loves the never ending pasta bowl. It isn’t just pasta, but often what is put in it that makes a deadly combination. Think about Italians in Italy – they eat pasta and don’t seem to gain weight, but in the US they do? One difference: what Americans add to their pasta– lots of meat, and a few vegetables. Ever been to Italy? Their pasta has lots of vegetables, it is made from whole wheat, and there is little meat.  Plus, unlike my son, whose favorite pasta has butter, in Italy it will be with some delicious extra virgin Olive oil.



Americanized Mexican Food

Appealing to emotions of disgust the hypocrisy that is Chipotle

Appealing to emotions of disgust the hypocrisy that is Chipotle

. We love America’s version of  Mexican food. But our version is loaded with things that are calorie busters. Lots of fat in the form of meats, cheese, processed beans. The true flavor of the food from Mexico comes from the salsa (vegetables and some fruits), and the chilis, not the cheese, and not a lot of meat. But there will be a lot of beans.  It amazes me that one fast food place tries to sell you on their “food with integrity” but their food is just another source of   calories.


Beef Dishes

meat spaghetti healthy

The most common use of beef in the US is to make Spaghetti. So pasta and beef, not a great combination, but oh so common. In Italy they don’t use that much meat with their pasta, and they are often fit. In the US, we add beef to Chinese food, Pasta, Rice – and we tend to get fat. When people from the Mediterranean or Asia come to the US and start adding a lot of meat to their dishes they tend to become obese. Nothing wrong with a bit of it, but too much isn’t a good thing. In the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH system of eating, the emphasis for protein is from fish and from legumes. Meats like beef, chicken, pork, or my beloved lamb are best kept to under four ounces a day (the size of a small hamburger patty.


Fat in Greek Yogurn

Ice cream, Frozen Yogurt, or just that yogurt you eat for breakfast. It is a source of calories. Most common yogurts have more sugar in them than ice cream! You would think that Greek Yogurt would mean something – it doesn’t. In fact. in this case it means 26 grams of sugar. Contrast that with their ice cream – 23 grams for their Cherry Garcia Ice Cream.

With the Mediterranean Diet Score the amount of dairy is kept to under 3/4 of a cup per day, and most of it comes from fermented dairy, like a bit of cheese or some plain yogurt that fruit is added to (not the fruit that is added by the manufacture of most dairy in the United States.

Keeping things in proper moderation provides for healthy nutrition without excess calories.

  What Didn’t Make The List

So what should you eat? What are we not getting in our diet? See my post about the Mediterranean Diet Score to find out how simple substitutions can make a big difference in your waist and your wallet! But the healthy diet should have calories from fruits, vegetables, legumes, with fish as the “choice of flesh.”

Learn to incorporate more colored vegetables in your diet and decrease the calorie busters. No fancy diet, just common sense.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

Share this article on social media!