We Eat Too Much—and the Calories aren't from Vegetables

The American Diet is slowly changing, according to USDA data that has been analyzed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a public watchdog group founded in 1971 that attempts to get Americans to eat healthier. The changes over the last decade or so are not very dramatic: in 2000, we ate more beef, whole milk, and sugar in our coffee, tea, and soda. We eat less shortening now than we did then, favoring oil for cooking these days. We're eating more cheese than we did in 2000, and a lot more yogurt. Our consumption nationwide of fruits, vegetables, and seafood hasn't really changed. The real scoop is that the dietary habits of Americans now, when compared to habits 40 years ago, are alarmingly different.

In 1970, the total amount of calories consumed daily per person was 2,064. In 1990, that number was 2,301. In 2010, total calories reached 2,538. That is a 23 percent increase—almost up by one-fourth; this is significantly and disturbingly higher. What the USDA was also able to track was that the bulk of this extra 500-calorie meal per American per day turns out to be calories from flour and cheese. In other words, there weren't significant increases in fruit and vegetable consumption, or, put more broadly, increases across all of the seven major food categories equally.

Sugar consumption has increased a great deal as well. Though many of us may favor sugar substitutes in our beverages these days, that hasn't stemmed the high tide of sugar crashing down upon our overall daily diets.

Cheese, in particular, has risen steadily in our diets since 1970. The researchers who analyzed the USDA data for CSPI say that has to do with a general move in our food culture from the occasional—or even frequent—slice of cheese on a sandwich to cheese in soup, cheese in salads, and cheese not just on pizza, but cheese even in pizza crusts.

Another area that merits raised awareness is just how large our typical portions of flour and grains have become. Because they are inexpensive, restaurants entice diners by piling plates high with bread, pasta, and rice. This becomes troubling when compiled with the fact that Americans are doing a lot more dining out. Even though there have been recent food movements to limit grains (from Atkins to South Beach to the present gluten-free craze), this has merely kept flour-consumption levels from rising in recent years; they are still way higher than they were in the 1970s, and even the 1980s.

The following is a dietary “report card” put together by CSPI which takes into account not just the overall level for each major category, but within these categories whether the type of food is a healthy choice (e.g., in the dairy category, how much of what we consume is low-fat yogurt and how much is full-fat ice cream).

Meat, Poultry, Seafood – B
Beef consumption has steadily declined—good news, but lean chicken breast and seafood still have some catching up to do. We consume 74 pounds of red meat per person per year, and 65 pounds of white meat including fish.

Non-Milk Dairy – C-
Since 1970, we've gone from 8 pounds of cheese per person per year to 23 pounds. The national waistband tells the tale as well as any food-consumption data.

Milk – B
We drink less milk (13 gallons per person per year, down from 21 gallons in 1970) and a lot more of it is low-fat and skim (whole milk consumption plummeted from 18 to 4 gallons in that 40-year window). Unfortunately, much of the butter fat we once got from milk now comes to us in the form of cheese. 21 to 13, 18 to 4.

Grains – C
We know we need to switch to whole grains, but we could stand to knock back consumption of all grains. Excess is excess; all foods wind up stored as fat if we aren't using them for fuel. Down from a peak in 2000 of 116 pounds per person per day, flour consumption is still at a gut-busting 109 pounds. It's time for serious portion control.

Sweeteners – D+
As noted above, we're still getting way to much sugar, and the high-fructose corn syrup that lurks in so many foods isn't helping.

Fats and Oils – B+
Trans fats are down because shortening and many oils now contain less. We are also cooking with less shortening and saturated fat. We need to keep up the good work and continue to limit the presence of pies, cakes, and cookies in our national diet.

Fruits and Vegetables – B-
The rise in fruit-and-vegetable consumption we started to see in the 1980s has stalled. Replace that sandwich with a salad, and always try to get more fruit in whole foods than in juice.

Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action Health Letter, Sept. 2013, “The Changing American Diet: A Report Card,” by Bonnie Liebman, http://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/changing_american_diet_13.pdf

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