It’s pretty much a given that people aren’t eating the same way they were in the 1970s. After all, nutritional information has improved, and with it, it’s fair to assume that people are trying to eat better. However, a new analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that, while the American diet has changed a bit, it’s not all in a good way. To reach that conclusion, Pew researchers looked at the USDA’s Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System, comparing data on eating habits between 1970 and 2014.
The results show some significant changes. Americans now eat much more chicken and less beef than we used to and drink less milk than in the past. Americans’ sugar consumption is also on a downswing, but corn-derived sweeteners, like high-fructose corn syrup, make up around half of that intake. We’re also eating a lot more cheese than we used to.
According to the analysis, this is how much the average American eats per year of different foods:
- 1.2 gallons of yogurt (many people didn’t eat yogurt in 1970)
- 36 pounds of cooking oil (three times more than 1970 levels)
- 2.1 pounds of margarine (down from 7.2 pounds in 1970)
- 47.9 pounds of chicken (more than doubled since 1970)
- 39.4 pounds of beef (fallen by over a third since 1970)
- 21.9 pounds of cheese a year (three times more than in 1970)
- 12.6 gallons of milk a year (42 percent less than in 1970)
- 77.3 pounds of some sort of sweetener (not including noncaloric ones, like aspartame, sucralose, and stevia—and down from the average American’s peak sugar consumption of 90.2 pounds per year in 1999)
Much of this data provides some worrisome food for thought. Take the increase in cheese consumption, which Beth Warren, R.D.N., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food, tells SELF isn’t great. “Cheese is high in saturated fat and salt, which is linked with increased heart disease and blood pressure risk,” she says.
The sharp drop in milk consumption is also concerning, Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer, tells SELF. “Milk is an excellent source of calcium, which helps build strong bones and balances blood pressure,” she says.
The levels of cooking oil people are consuming aren’t great either, Tara Gidus, R.D.N., author of Flat Belly Cooking for Dummies, tells SELF. “Oil is extremely calorie-dense,” she says, noting that one tablespoon of cooking oil contains about 120 calories, so it adds up quickly.
When it comes to sugar, Warren isn’t particularly happy about the sharp increase in corn-derived sweeteners, like high-fructose corn syrup. It points toward an increase in consuming packaged foods, which contribute to poor health over time, she says.
However, there’s some good news in here, too. The increase in yogurt consumption is applause-worthy, Warren says: “Yogurts are a great source of probiotics and can be factored in to an overall healthful diet.” (One thing to keep in mind, per Gina Keatley, a C.D.N. practicing in New York City: Eating too many sugar-sweetened yogurts can be bad for you, which is why it’s better to opt for unflavored varieties and flavor them yourself with fresh fruit or spices, she tells SELF.)
Keatley says the increase in chicken consumption over beef can be a good thing, since research has linked the fat in red meat to heart disease. However, she adds, preparation is important. “Eating chicken wings with 16 grams of fat per 3-ounce serving is not going to be better than having top-round beef at only 8 grams of fat per 3-ounce serving,” she points out.
Beyond eating more or less of specific foods, the analysis found that Americans are just eating more in general: The average American eats 2,481 calories in a day—23 percent more than what we ate in 1970.
“When it comes to weight gain, we often point the finger at individual nutrients, such as too much fat or sugar, but this stat really says it all,” Ansel says. “A 23 percent increase in calories is huge.” Gidus agrees. “We are eating more calories but moving less than 1970, which equals weight gain and the obesity epidemic growing,” she says.
Keatley suspects that the increase in overall calories is linked to eating out. “As Americans, we are cooking less and less for ourselves, so we can no longer control what goes into our meals,” she says. “Many restaurants and large food suppliers are changing their menus and processes to help us become healthier…however, we need to be more attuned to what we eat and how much of it we consume.”
While there is definitely room for improvement in the American diet, Warren says there is some positive news from the findings. “A lot of the changes are in line with research that has come out, such as trans fats found in [items like] margarine and excessive sugars being poor health contributors,” she says. “I’m happy that consumers are listening to the research and modifying their diets.”
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