What’s a healthy American diet?

Healthy eating? (Photo: philcampbell/Flickr)

I always enjoy eating well-made, rich, flavorful foods (read: something dipped in chocolate). Still, I’ve always thought that my diet – filled with homemade foods, limited snacking and largely centered on produce – was pretty healthy, overall. That is, I did until I saw a study that made me start second-guessing my assumptions.

A recently published Consumer Reports survey found that 90 percent of Americans believe that their diet is healthy – even as 57 percent reported BMIs that qualified them as overweight or obese.

You can be heavy and eat healthily, of course – but large amounts of respondents reported unhealthy habits, from drinking sugary beverages to not weighing themselves regularly. And among Public Radio Kitchen’s followers on Twitter, where we followed your reactions to the survey, there was no shortage of skepticism regarding the health of the average American diet.

So, I decided to ask around. I started at WBUR, where I conducted my own survey. Many here were more self-critical than I imagine most Americans are. Our beautiful receptionist Pauline Sulprizio, for instance, calls herself the “carb queen.”

“I’m married to an Italian,” she said. “I wouldn’t suggest that if you want to keep your ideal weight.”

Quinn Ferree, who works in WBUR’s Membership and Marketing department, says he eats healthy some of the time – though it’s a little harder when his band plays at gigs where they get free food.

But Ray Magliozzi, the co-host of “Car Talk,” said he really does have a healthy diet – in fact, he’s managed to lose 40 pounds over the last decade.

“I do have a healthy diet, and I know that only by comparison to the diet I used to have,” Magliozzi said. “Mostly by diet [is how I’ve lost weight]. I would attribute maybe 5 percent of it to the gym and 95 percent of it to food, and I’m convinced that if you want to lose weight, you lose weight by not eating. The ‘low-food’ diet. All the fad diets I don’t think work – or at least they’ve never worked for me – but just reducing your intake and making better choices, for sure.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I do occasionally get weak.” (Laughs.) Still, he tries to make varied, healthy substitutions when he sits down to eat – chicken for beef, more vegetables instead of meat and grilled fish over fried.

Then I went on to ask some friends how they’d evaluate their food intake. “Well I know my diet is definitely not healthy at all,” said Kenny Billimoria, a student at NYU who admits to regularly wolfing down candy and McDonald’s – as well as a big, sit-down restaurant meal at lunch. “I’m constantly eating because I’m constantly going. But I just feel that’s like the American Way – we’re always going and some of us over-fuel.”

Saba Hamedy, a Boston University undergrad, sees her diet similarly. As editor of Boston University’s undergraduate newspaper, Saba often stays up until 6 or 7 in the morning, hurriedly trying to put out a new edition. On those nights, greasy foods are comforting fuel.

“Late nights at the newspaper cause me to throw out healthy foods and consume anything I can eat at the time I am hungry,” she said. “It’s not that I love greasy food, it’s just that I feel like it’s quicker and more affordable and convenient, especially when you’re a college student.”

My roommate Tess Wiley, however, said she was very attentive to what she puts in her body. “I try to eat mostly natural, unprocessed foods,” the BU undergrad said. “Organic when I can.” She also tries to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day – lately not through regular meals, but through small snacks like smoothies, salads, small pasta bowls and handfuls of nuts.

While Max Graham, my boyfriend and a BU grad student, doesn’t always go that far – he admitted that he doesn’t get enough produce after my careful needling – he still thinks he’s healthy, “compared to the average American.” In his words, “I don’t eat fast food [or] highly processed food, and I rarely if ever snack beyond eating fruit.”

What struck me most when taking my informal survey was that each person had a different idea of what, exactly, constitutes a “healthy diet.” Saba said that to her, healthy eating is “balancing a burger with a salad,” while Magliozzi said the key is eating what you want – just less of it. Similarly, organic food is very important to Tess; me, I couldn’t care less.

“It’s a shame that so many of us have such skewed perceptions about what is healthy,” Tess told me in an email. “But it’s not really our fault, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we’re so susceptible to the bombardment of new health claims we’re confronted with every day.”

Your turn: do you think your diet is healthy? What does it really mean to eat healthily, anyway? Post your comments here.

5 thoughts on “What’s a healthy American diet?

  1. Lauren

    This is such a great post! I agree that the definition of “healthy” will vary drastically depending on who you ask. In my opinion, a healthy diet is comprised of whole, unprocessed foods such as: organic produce (preferably in-season and locally grown when possible), whole grains (whole wheat bread and pasta, quinoa, brown rice, rolled oats, etc.), moderate amounts of humanely raised lean animal protein (organic chicken breasts, 93% lean ground turkey, grass-fed beef, pork tenderloin, shrimp and sustainable fish), non-animal protein (nuts, seeds, nut butters etc.), low-fat or fat-free organic dairy products (milk, yogurt, etc.) and a small amount of healthy desserts made with unrefined sweeteners (Sucanat, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup etc.). I try to keep each meal balanced by including an ingredient from at least 3 of the previously mentioned food groups, and by ensuring a range of colors (mainly by way of various kinds of produce).

  2. Kayleigh

    Jamie, this is a question I’ve been trying to answer for years. As a girl growing up in the millennial generation, where weight can make or break your self-esteem for the rest of your life, I find it hard to wrap my brain around the “correct” way to diet. I’ve tried many diets but the one that is seeming to work best is a big breakfast of fruit and grain and frequent small meals (almonds, apples, carrots, etc) throughtout the day. Going to school in Vermont has drilled the organic, local food initiative into my head. The idea is that, in the long run, organic more expensive foods will lower your healthcare bills when you’re older. In addition, I’ve found that going vegetarian has increased my energy and forced me to find healthy protien-alternatives. Nonetheless, “healthy” is a subjective words that varies from body to body. Eat what makes your mind and body feel good.

  3. Roy

    Lauren said it all and I agree with her, just about. She didn’t mention honey in her sweeteners. That would be a good one to add. Try it in coffee or tea instead of sugar. Speaking of coffee, it’s never been found to be bad for you (I don’t think), but choose the type that is responsibly grown.

  4. Renee {Eat.Live.Blog}

    I think the most best way to eat healthy is to be informed about what you are eating. If you know the nutritional value of those fries and still want to eat them, go for it! Just remember what you ate when you make your next choice. Everything in moderation…..

    Oh yeah, and EXERCISE!!!!

  5. Sarah @ Semi-Sweet

    A healthy diet, to me, is a varied diet. A diet that doesn’t cut out any entire food groups (unless, of course, there’s a medical reason for that). A diet that allows for eating for the sheer pleasure of eating, if you’re into that sort of thing (I am). A diet that emphasizes whole foods, more veggies than meats, and more fruits than candies. Overarching premise is moderation in all things . . . . and having fun!