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What Americans Eat; More Calories and Increased Restaurant Food Consumption

Posted May 13 2010 12:00am

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal focusing on childhood obesity and federal initiatives to combat the problem included a very interesting chart that I present below (see: White House Obesity Plan Mixes Carrots With Sticks ). In a very succinct fashion, it presents data that explains some of the major problems in the diets of Americans. Significant changes need to be made in order to address our obesity epidemic.

Wsj_obesity From 1978 to 2006, the average caloric intake of Americans has increase from 1,826 per day to 2,157, an increase of 331 calories (18%). I'm sure that during this same interval, the daily activity level of most U.S. adults has declined as they moved from jobs requiring physical activity to desk positions. In other words, decreased caloric burn and greater food consumption.

Note also in the chart the shift of the percentage of food not eaten at home from 18% to 37%. For me, these numbers illustrate one of our major challenges and part of the reason for our addiction to salt and sugar (see: Some Salty Facts Keeping to a Healthy Diet ; Federal Tax on Soda Pop Proposed: Can This Be Justified? ). Fast food restaurants enhance the flavor of their unhealthy but inexpensive food choices with these food additives (see: Will Posting Calorie Counts in Fast Food Restaurants Help Curb Obesity? ). Sugary pop also constitutes one of their high-profit-margin items so they dispense it in "super" sizes.

I must admit that I was surprised by the decline in fat consumption since 1978 illustrated in this chart. I would have predicted that fat consumption has increased over recent years. One of the ways in which this can be explained is on the basis of our consumption of myriad "low fat" food products, nominally to improve our health. However, the advertised benefits of such foods is clearly not occurring (see: Obesity, Nutrigenomics, and the Clinical Laboratory ).

So what is the take-home less from these data? First of all, we are consuming more calories than we burn and are thus getting heavier. Part of this trend clearly relates to fast-food consumption outside the home. I am not sure how to reverse this trend. Fast food is relatively cheap but not that nutritious. With two working parents as the norm in many families and reduced income for many of them, the appeal of inexpensive "outside" eating is apparent. In such an environment, I am not sure whether more nutritious choices or the posting of calorie counts will result in significant dietary changes.

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