How History Shaped the American Diet Part 1: From Scratch to TV Dinners


Factor or fiction?

Foods with cholesterol causes heart disease. Full fat foods cause weight gain. Low-fat, sugar-free, diet foods are the way to lose weight. What you eat doesn’t matter, it’s all about reducing calories. Fad diets, juice cleanses, and detoxes work. Eating small meals throughout the day is better. Healthy foods are expensive…

These and many other myths have influenced the American diet for much longer than you might think. But what are the foundations of these beliefs?

Looking back through history, there is a compelling story underlying what we believe about nutrition and how that shaped the American diet as we know it today.

Decades of change

Rapid change influencing daily life began over 100 years ago. The turn of the 20th century marked an era of great growth and optimism in the United States. Typical American families lived off the land and prepared meals from scratch. For some, vegetables were picked from the garden and meat was a mainstay. Others relied on rice or cornmeal. Thousands of Americans died of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and pellagra (vitamin B deficiency). Thus, the emphasis on eating your veggies!

America became a ‘melting pot’ in the 1910s as immigration was at an all-time high, bringing new flavors to the kitchen. How else can lasagna with American cheese and chop suey with American hamburger be explained?

Progress was rapid in the following decades. This set the stage for industrialization which was mirrored in the cuisine at the time. Processed foods such as mayonnaise, Oreo cookies, Crisco, puffed wheat and puffed rice, and hot dogs became increasingly available. Night life escalated as speakeasy dining and cocktail parties lead to the concoction of many of today’s popular mixed drinks. However, Prohibition crippled the night life and put many restaurants and hotels out of business in the 1920s. Not only did it put a stop to alcohol sales, but production of soft drinks, candy, and fruit cocktail increased and tea rooms and cafeterias took the place of restaurants and hotels.

Then, the 1930s were struck with the Great Depression. Food, however, was not sparse and hard to come by because there was an ample supply of inexpensive foods. People had the options of lesser grade meats (chuck instead of sirloin), cheaper cuts of animal (heart, brains, feet), and manufactured substitutes such as Crisco instead of butter. Despite this, protein, the most expensive part of the meal, was reduced and one-pot meals, such as mac and cheese, soups, and casseroles became popular. The Great Depression slowly waned, then the horrors of WWII hit in the 1940s. Women left the kitchen to work in factories and every family had to ration food. The government restricted each person to 28 ounces of meat per week and limited sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and coffee. Cookies were sugarless, cakes were made without eggs, and meals without meat. 

As America recovered from the war, cookbooks and magazines propagated simple, belly-filling meals made from pre-packaged foods. The Swanson TV dinner was introduced in 1953 starting an uprising of convenience items. In addition, time-saving appliances were increasingly prevalent in American households. Food science continues to evolve. In 1965, the popularity of artificial sweeteners soared. Its use increased threefold in the US, particularly in the form of soda. Also, around this time, scientists began developing an inexpensive method of extracting oils from corn, soybeans, cottonseed, and other oilseeds – called vegetable oil. Thus, the consumption of vegetable fats increased. Everything from TV dinners to fat-free, sugar-free, diet foods were mass produced. To say the least, variety of and convenience of foods grew swiftly while cost was reduced and America went from deaths due to vitamin deficiencies to food overload in only a few decades.

In short, American diet became more diverse and processed, less starchy, cheaper, and arguably more calorically dense. Based on nationally-represented surveys of food intake, the biggest difference in the American diet today versus 70 years ago is that the majority of calories come from refined high-fat foods and carbohydrates (Fig. 1). Simultaneously, physical demands at home and the workplace decreased due to labor-saving devices and industrialization, resulting in reduced physical activity. Therefore, both diet quality (and quantity) changed and daily energy expenditure decrease and then began a rise in the prevalence of obesity and chronic disease.

This is just the background to the meat of the story. Stay tuned for part 2 of How History Shaped the American Diet.