The history of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrition guides includes over 100 years of American nutrition advice. The guides have been updated over time to adopt new scientific findings and new public health marketing techniques. The current guidelines are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 – 2020. What the government promotes as a healthy diet has not only changed over the course of generations but is often heavily influenced be societal values at that time.

These guidelines have been criticized over time as not accurately representing scientific information about optimal nutrition, and as being overly influenced by profit, personal interest, and the agricultural industries the USDA promotes. The introduction of the USDA’s food guide pyramid in 1992 attempted to express the recommended servings of each food group into the American diet.

MyPlate is the current nutrition guide published by the United States Department of Agriculture, consisting of a diagram of a plate and glass divided into five food groups. It replaced the USDA’s MyPyramid diagram in 2011, ending 19 years of food pyramid iconography (USDA, 2019).

Diet is the sum of food consumed by an organism or group, and should not be confused with dieting, which refers to food restriction with the goal of weight control. Numerous studies have attempted to identify contributing factors for poor health habits in the United States that have contributed to rising rates of obesity and diseases related to obesity. These studies have resulted in numerous hypotheses as to what those key factors are. A common theme is that of too much food, too little exercise, and a sedentary schedule; however, these themes are increasingly viewed as overly simplistic and lacking in awareness to the complex approaches that are needed to improve healthy living for all Americans. For example, while dieting, people tend to consume more low-fat or fat-free products, even though those items can be just as damaging to the body as the items with fat. Currently, less than 20% of all Americans meet the recommended minimum dietary guidelines for optimal health (“Health Diet”, n.d).

Other factors not directly related to caloric intake and activity levels are also believed to contribute to lowered physical fitness and higher body-mass index (BMI) rates. These include careers that involve long hours of sitting, decreased ability to delay gratification, and heavy marketing to promote unhealthy foods. Genetics are also believed to be a factor that contributes to higher BMI. In a 2018 study, researchers stated that the presence of the human gene APOA2 could result in a higher BMI in individuals. Also, the probability of obesity can even start before birth due to things that the mother does such as smoking and gaining a lot of weight.

Among the complex factors impacting eating habits in American culture are two key enculturated trends:

  • Consumer culture
  • Mixed media messaging

Consumer culture focuses on the spending of the customer’s money on material goods to attain a lifestyle in a capitalist economy. Over the years, people of different age groups are employed by marketing companies to help understand the beliefs, attitudes, values, and past behaviors of the targeted consumers. As consumers grow increasingly removed from food production, the role of product creation, advertising, and publicity become the primary vehicles for information about food. With processed food as the dominant category, marketers have almost infinite possibilities in developing their products for mass appeal.

Today’s American citizens are inundated with marketed messages that food choices should be fast, bring us pleasure, and meet our emotional needs over physiological needs. Of the food advertised to children on television, 73% is fast or convenience foods (“Consumer Culture”, 2019). Additionally, Americans are often enculturated to pursue personal satisfaction while also adhering to unrealistic standards of fitness and attractiveness. Our consumer culture promotes these conflicting standards with mixed messaging in various media formats.

Mixed messaging can refer to any communication that is contradictory, inconsistent, or unclear, especially in its motive or intent. Media advertisements, athletic and entertainer role-models, and character storylines are often embedded (subtly, or at times, overtly) with the message that Americans “deserve” to feel good but must also look good in the process.

With 1 out of 3 adults and 1 out of 6 children in the United States categorized as excessively overweight by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) it is imperative to examine the factors affecting this damaging trend (Obesity, 2019). We will talk in Chapter 10 about the cultural relationship Americans have with diet and appearance, which contributes to the formation of eating disorders, further damaging overall health and well-being.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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