Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Grains, Fats, Sugar – the Calorie Culprits in the American Diet

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In the past 20 years, obesity rates have risen significantly in the U.S.  In many states, almost 1/3 of Americans are obese, with a greater percentage overweight.  Have calories  increased and more of them consumed than in previous decades?  What are the sources of these calories and how much have they decreased or increased since 1970, when the obesity “epidemic” was thought to begin.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) surveys what the population is consuming (i.e., the types of foods contributing to the American diet annually).  Data on the availability of different foods per capita is adjusted for losses like spoilage and waste.  These losses are calculated which results in data that closely resemble the amount of food that contributes to the American diet.   The data does not include restaurant food.

The following bar graphs show the estimated amounts of calories consumed by Americans from 1970 to 2008 (the last available data).

The types of food include:

Meat, Eggs, Nuts





Added Fats (industrial seed oils)

Added Sugars

Civil Eats Blog provides an infograph that shows “calories available per day per capita” as a plate of different food groups that grow or shrink depending on how many calories were produced that year.  I have taken each decade and by bar graphs show how many calories from each food group has changed from 1970 to 2008.


What does the data show?  Between 1970 and 1980, calorie intake is relatively stable, rising 1.2%.  Between 1980 and 1990, intake increased 9.6%.  From 1990 to 2008, the number of calories rise another 11.4%.  Calories available per person increased 23.3% from 1970 to 2008.  This coupled with a decrease in the amount of exercise we get may be well the reason for the rise in obesity in America.

As far as the individual food groups are concerned, it appears that Meats, eggs, nuts, vegetables, and dairy remained fairly stable.  Fruit calories increased slightly.

However, not surprising, grains, added sugars, and added fats all increased and it is assumed that these food groups contributed to the increase in calories over the time period presented.


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