The census bureauâ€™s snapshot of the American diet
The census bureau recently published the official count of people living in the US — there are more than 308 million of us. But the bureau does much more than tally people — it also gathers lots of interesting information about Americans and the American economy, and this treasure trove is available in the 2011 statistical abstract. The New York Times had a fun visual portrait of America by the numbers last weekend, which inspired me to take a look at the data, while concentrating on food and nutrition. The census data provides an interesting snapshot of our changing food habits, and since the data covers several decades, it’s interesting to see whether it sheds some light on why obesity became so prevalent over the past 30 years.
Before you get all paranoid, let me emphasize that the government doesn’t know what you’re eating: The consumption information is estimated and computed dividing food availability (which is how much food is there after subtracting exports, residual stocks and non-food use) by the resident population. We don’t know if the food ends up wasted, or fed to the family dog, but the trends over time are quite telling.
Our collective food pantry: Food trends by category
Red meat consumption went down by about 14 percent from 1980 to 2008, but that still leaves 5 servings of red meat a day for each of us. At the same time poultry went up 80 percent.
Dairy products consumption also went up in the same time period, but the interesting information lies in the details: While beverage milks have gone down by 25 percent, cheese consumption went way up in the past 3 decades, from 17.5 pounds/person/year to 32.4, a rise of 85 percent! And I’m sure you’ve noticed the proliferation in the yogurt isle — yogurt has become a major seller, and we’re consuming 370 percent more of it than we did in 1980.
We’re eating more fats and oils. In fact, our total fat consumption went up 50 percent from 1980 to 2008.
Flour and cereal products:
There’s been a significant per capita increase in grain consumption, from 150 pounds/person/year in 1980 to 197 pounds/person/year in 2008, which amounts to a 36 percent increase, but the most dramatic increase is in corn products intake — consumption rose by more than 156 percent in that time period!
Caloric sweetener consumption rose by about 13 percent in the past 3 decades. While refined cane and beet sugar actually declined, high fructose corn syrup intake went up 180 percent!
Fruits and veggies:
Fruit consumption is down by 15 pounds/person/year (5 percent) since 1980, and down 36 pounds/person/year (12 percent) since 2000 (fruit consumption went up in the 90’s, and then sank to new lower levels). Veggies fared no better: Total veggie intake is down 33 pounds (8 percent) since 2000.
The total calories available per person in the US rose from 3200 per day in 1980 to 3900 in the 2000s.
We’re eating more, and of the wrong foods
The census data provide further support to what we already know from scientific studies which rely on diet records: Overall, we’re eating more, and ofall the wrong things. Although it seems we’ve been somewhat responsive to the advice to cut some red meat, we’ve replaced red meat by other sources of animal products, mainly cheese. We’re eating lots more fat, lots more sugar (mostly corn based sugars—because they’re cheap) and lots more refined grain products, many of them made of corn. Our appetite for fruits and veggies – the low-calorie food group we’ve never come close to meeting the daily recommendation for – has diminished further.
Farm policies explain much of these trends. Our farmers are encouraged financially to produce commodity grains and animal products, while fruits and veggies aren’t subsidized.
I have to end on a few positive notes: Smoking continues to decline, it’s down by 3 percent from 2000 to 2008, clearly not good enough, but the direction is positive; and organic farming boomed—total organic certified farmland grew by 170 percent, and we have added 550 percent more organic milk cows during those recent eight years.
Can you guess which vegetable we consume the most of?
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