To see what’s wrong with the American diet, look no farther than the local convenience store. There, punctuated by the occasional basket of bananas or apples, sit gleaming cases of soft drinks and beer, wide shelves of crackers and cookies, a panorama of muffins, doughnuts, brownies, ice cream, and candy bars. The marketers here are no fools—they know what scientists confirmed only this past spring: Americans eat this stuff up.
After crunching dietary data gathered from more than 4,700 adults, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that soft drinks provide more than 7 percent of the average daily adult intake of calories—the largest single source. Soft drinks, alcohol, and sweets, including pastries, account for more than 25 percent of adults’ calories. Add fruit drinks and salty snacks and the figure rises to 30 percent. Nearly one-third of our calories come from junk food and alcohol.
Even jaded nutritionists, long inured to the public’s atrocious dining habits, were taken aback by the study. “The dose really does make the poison,” says epidemiologist Gladys Block, the study’s lead author. “We knew people ate a lot of this stuff. But that much?”
Not only do these foods fuel the nation’s obesity epidemic, says Block, they are displacing the nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables necessary to fend off disease. The result, Block says, is an unappetizing paradox: a nation of people simultaneously overfed and undernourished.
Under pressure from food manufacturers, health officials have hesitated to demonize particular foods as junk and instead proffer general advice about good nutrition. Block says it’s time to tell Americans to eat more foods that matter—and to say aloud that, nutritionally speaking, some foods do not.