Heart Attack Nation: How the American Diet Got So SAD

As I walked around the room admiring all the people in their black tie attire, I was reminded of how generous people can be for a cause — when they want to help others and save lives. This particular cause was a “Heart Ball” to benefit the American Heart Association. We all sat down at our tables for the dinner and auction. And then I saw the menu. A cheese, cream, beef, buttered, chocolate filled menu sure to cause any number of the attendees heart artery blockages. I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone thought about the irony of serving this lavish, artery clogging menu at a fundraiser to cure heart disease. And then my friend said…the people who paid money for this event (we went for free because the table was donated to our agency) expect a good meal, and they wouldn’t want healthy vegetables, beans, etc.

And that’s when I became SAD. As a person who tries to eat healthy and educate others on the importance of a healthy diet, I also understand “falling off the wagon” or wanting special foods on special days. I understand that in order to win this battle against diseases directly linked to the Standard American Diet (SAD), Americans need to change the culture of how we eat.

I suppose before red meat, fish, cheese, chocolate and butter became everyday staples, a meal like the one served at the “Heart Ball” would be considered appropriate because normal people (even high society people) don’t eat food like that on a regular basis. And a meal like that, eaten every so often, will not cause as much damage as eating like that everyday. But nowadays, people eat meat and fats at almost every meal and then wonder why they have a massive, sometimes fatal, heart attack before the age of 50.

How did we get this way? How did we get to a place where it’s necessary to  feed people artery-clogging food to raise money for high-quality cardiac care?

The epidemic of heart disease and other Standard American Diet (SAD) diseases (e.g. cancer, diabetes and autoimmune diseases) are a relatively new phenomenon that has come about as a result of less active lifestyles and convenience foods.

A brief history of how we got to this place:

Since the Great Depression, the number of farms has greatly declined in America. In 1934, there were 135,000 farms in Nebraska. In 2001, there were only 58,000. When the Great Depression hit, people couldn’t afford to live on their land, so they moved into cities where they could work.  As a result, the government began pressuring farmers to produce more crop, which meant bigger, fewer more industrialized farms. The government also gave preference to farmers growing corn, thus squeezing out little farms that had diversified crop yields. When McDonald’s came around in the 70’s, the fast food industry completely revolutionized farming by demanding uniform meat and chicken, produced faster and in larger quantities. The thousands of cattle and chicken farmers before the 70’s have been reduced to only a handful today.

Before the Great Depression, people grew their own food, controlled what went into their crops, seeds and livestock. Eating meat was a luxury and not done very often. People relied on a mostly plant-based diet. Today, people work away from home, have little time to cook (much less grow) their own food, and therefore eat whatever they can get conveniently. Most people don’t even know where their food comes from, much less what chemicals or other products were used to make it grow. McDonald’s helped create a culture that makes highly processed foods that were once reserved only for special occasions a staple of every meal.

America was founded on the idea that everyone had a chance to make a better life for themselves. I have to wonder if our forefathers believed that a better life included the so called “food” causing so many diseases today. The culture we have to change is our own.

So what can you do?

  1. Shop at your local farmers market. The foods may be more expensive, but you are supporting the local farmer.
  2. Join a Community Supportive Agriculture (CSA) in your area.
  3. Stop eating at fast food restaurants.
  4. Cook at least one meal a day, and bring your lunch to work rather than eating out.
  5. Start your own vegetable garden. Even if you don’t have land, you can grow vegetables in pots. You can grow herbs in your house.


  1. While I agree with your thinking on the Heart Ball dinner, people have been eating this way for years. Especially rich people. Before WWI, both rich Americans, and Europeans ate like that on a regular basis. Their meals were as lavish as their lifestyle.
    McDonalds was established in 1940, not the 70's. Ray Kroc took it over in the mid 50's and made it was it is today.
    Meat has been a staple on farms for centuries. In fact, many winters, they only had meat and root vegetables, like potatoe, to eat. It wasn't a luxury, as it was the only thing they had until the next crop grew. Which is why when spring came, out came the spring tonics.
    I think it is important to get historical facts correct.