C&B Notes

Modern American Diet

When it comes to obesity, are we fighting the right enemy?

So how do Americans really eat, and how has that changed over time?  We analyzed data from the USDA’s Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System, or FADS, to find out.  (Specifically, we used food availability adjusted for waste, spoilage and other loss as a proxy for consumption.)  While the nation’s eating habits don’t change all that much from year to year, looking at them over 40 or more years shows some significant changes.

Broadly speaking, we eat a lot more than we used to: The average American consumed 2,481 calories a day in 2010, about 23% more than in 1970.  That’s more than most adults need to maintain their current weight, according to the Mayo Clinic’s calorie calculator.  (A 40-year-old man of average height and weight who’s moderately active, for instance, needs 2,400 calories; a 40-year-old woman with corresponding characteristics needs 1,850 calories.)

Nearly half of those calories come from just two food groups: flours and grains (581 calories, or 23.4%) and fats and oils (575, or 23.2%), up from a combined 37.3% in 1970.  Meats, dairy and sweeteners provide smaller shares of our daily caloric intake than they did four decades ago; then again, so do fruits and vegetables (7.9% in 2010 versus 9.2% in 1970).

Most of the fats we consume are in the form of vegetable oils: soybean, corn, canola and other oils used as ingredients or in which foods are cooked.  Such oils contributed 402 calories on their own to our daily diet in 2010 (although the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in its analysis of the USDA data, notes that the increase in fat consumption may not be as steep as it appears, because the number of manufacturers reporting data jumped suddenly in 2000)…

America’s sweet tooth peaked in 1999, when each person consumed an average of 90.2 pounds of added caloric sweeteners a year, or 26.7 teaspoons a day.  In 2014, sweetener use was down to 77.3 pounds per year, or 22.9 teaspoons a day.  (Note that those figures don’t include noncaloric sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and stevia.)  While most of the sweetener consumed in 1970 was refined sugar, the market is now almost evenly split between sugar and corn-derived sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup.

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