Are Americans Delusional When It Comes to Their Health?

Addressing the Gap between Beliefs and Reality

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Do you believe you’re living a healthy lifestyle? If so, you’re not alone—so do 43 percent of Americans. However, we’re consuming more calories than ever. Roberta H. Anding, M.S., explains why this disconnect exists and what to do about it.

young man in office eating slice of pizza
Most Americans believe they are living a healthy lifestyle with a healthy diet; but in reality, they consume more calories than they did in past years. (Image: nd3000/Shutterstock)

The Allure of Fad Diets

Are Americans healthy? They seem to think they are.

However, there seems to be a huge disconnect between what Americans perceive as “eating healthy” and the reality. For instance, many people fall prey to the belief that fad diets such as the “master cleanse” will help them be healthier and attain their desired body.

“I had a girl who came into my office, and she was on this wonderful cayenne, lemonade, and maple syrup diet,” Professor Anding said. “She really wanted to know how to lose weight. She’d seen a celebrity on television talking about this diet and how they lost weight very, very quickly, and how this was a wonderful way of detoxifying her body.”

While the woman ended up losing some weight on this diet, she wasn’t getting adequate amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and she lost mostly fluid as opposed to the body fat that she was attempting to lose.

Americans and Health: The Disconnect

We’re interested in eating right and increasing our physical activity, but do we actually do any of this? A recent trend study from the American Dietetic Association suggests that 43 percent of Americans believe that they are already eating well.

At the same time, the United States Department of Agriculture has shown that Americans have increased their calories by 523 calories per day since 1970. Think about that for a second. 

If indeed we’re increasing our calories, but we believe that we’re eating right, there is a disconnect there. We believe we’re eating well—43 percent of us—yet we’re increasing our calories by about 523 calories per day. This means we’re going to gain weight every single year. 

While some of these 523 additional calories may come from fruits and vegetables, fruits and vegetables don’t have a lot of calories. This means a good percentage of these calories—about 50 percent—are coming from added fats and sugars. 

Fats and sugars are okay—in moderation. Remember the way your grandmother fixed food. You might have had fried foods or dessert at a meal, but the portions were controlled. Since the 1970s, portions have been getting larger, which accounts for the increase in calories.

Avoiding Health Pitfalls

What is the first step in overcoming this disconnect? Awareness.

When you hear about the latest-and-greatest diet, evaluate it with a grain of salt. Is it sustainable, and will it deliver the nutrition you need?

As far as caloric intake goes, the only way you’ll truly know how much you’re eating is if you measure your portions. For instance, if your box of cereal says “serving size one cup,” measure it out first instead of directly pouring into a bowl that may actually be three cups deep. 

Additionally, don’t blindly eat chips or cookies of the bag, particularly while doing other tasks, which is sure to lead to overeating. Again, measure out the serving size into a bowl (or half the serving if it’s particularly high in sugar or calories). 

Finally, it’s best to limit eating out to once a week at most, as restaurants are known for serving extremely large portion sizes. Instead, cook at home where you can control everything by measuring out your portions and using an abundance of fresh vegetables and protein while limiting fat and sugars—a win-win all around!

Now you may be wondering, whatever happened to that girl on the crazy lemonade, cayenne, and maple syrup diet? 

“We got her off that diet and onto something sensible because, could she maintain that diet?” Professor Anding said. “What if she went out to lunch with her friends? What if she got a job?”

They replaced the hype with a series of practical actions that she could consistently take in her life: eat breakfast, not skip meals, and stay away from large portions of fast food.

Yes, she lost weight. While she did not lose all the weight that she wanted to lose, she lost weight in a sensible way that was integrated into her lifestyle.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.