America is the king of King Size, the cream of the crops, the place where portions are out of all proportion. When it comes to food, the United States is one of the most influential countries in the world. But what will happen if the rest of the world adopts American food habits? In short: it can’t. Here are nine incredible facts about the incredibly unsustainable diet we call the Standard American Diet.
Meat production is environmentally problematic. The emissions are worse than your car. The ethical issues are worse than those in any Ed Norton film.
Oh, the resources. Meat is so packed with protein and fats that a stomachful is much more than you need. And there’s the fact that making meat requires vast amounts of food and cleared land. Problems abound – but so does the demand for meat, despite it being patently clear that we need to eat less of it.
According to the New York Times, the world’s total meat supply in 2007 was 284 million tons. Since Americans eat an average of 8 ounces of meat every day – or over 180 pounds a year – this means that if the entire population of the world switched to American meat-eating habits, it would require around 550 million tons a year. Put another way – we’d need two planet Earths to produce enough meat to feed everyone.
Asking the calorie needs of the average human being is a little like asking how long a piece of string is – but as a broad, shot-in-the-dark figure that neglects to account for fitness, exercise, metabolism and a host of other factors, the average human male needs around 2,500 calories and the average woman about 2,000. That’s what we need to function. Any extra gets stored away by our bodies for a rainy day.
Americans are not efficient eaters. The calories consumed per day by the average American in 2008 was 3,750 (in a population of 303 million), according to the World Resources Institute. Compare this with the 2,500-calorie average in India (population – 1,147 million). Put thus, the food consumed by Americans could feed 39% of India’s population – even though America contains a quarter of the people.
Right now, world hunger is a pressing issue. Some people aren’t even getting the minimum they need to survive. So the question of what would happen if everyone ate the same calories as Americans…is meaningless.
Sodium chloride, how we love you. We equate you with wisdom and experience (“seasoned”) and honesty (“salt of the earth”), and we sprinkle you over every meal. Yet you’re one of our unhealthiest obsessions.
While the likes of the American Heart Association recommend a daily intake of no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (or around a teaspoonful), the average American consumes double that amount (maybe even higher). For many the result is high blood pressure or hypertension – and sufferers of this life-threatening condition need to cut back further to around 1,500mg. Yet salt continues to sneak past, thanks to its widespread use in processed foods (our bodies need salt and we’re hardwired to enjoy the taste of it – a fact outrageously exploited by snack-food manufacturers).
In 2006, world salt production was an estimated 240 million tons. Of this, around 17% goes towards making edible salt. If the entire world switched to eating 12g of salt a day, that would be around 30 million tons of salt, or just 12.5% of total world production levels. There’s the worry – it could happen. (The reason is that world salt production is higher than ever – in fact it appears to have tripled since 1960’s estimated 85 million tonnes).
The long term health consequences of 12g a day for everyone would be catastrophic. Imagine a world population that routinely suffered from asthma, blood pressure at a stroke-inducing level, ulcers, dehydration, renal failure and an elevated risk of obesity…and those are just the effects medical science feels unanimously confident about.
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