Poor Eating Habits: A Century in the Making

By Neal Barnard, MD   |  29Comments|

What is making Americans gain weight? Which foods are responsible for the obesity epidemic? Is it soda? Fast food?

In the May 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, I published a detailed analysis of how diets have changed over the past century, based on government records going back to 1909. The results were surprising—even sobering—and I thought I would share them with you. Here’s what we found:

Compared to a century ago, an average American now eats 75 pounds more meat every year. Although red meat made a big charge early in the last century, the recent increase has all been related to chicken. Convinced that chicken is somehow health food, Americans now eat more than one million chickens per hour. Perhaps surprisingly, its fat content is not much different from beef (about 29% for lean beef, 23% for skinless chicken breast, compared to less than 10% for typical vegetables, fruits and beans.)

Cheese intake back in 1909 amounted to less than four pounds per person per year. Americans had not yet discovered cheese pizza or cheeseburgers, or the fact that schoolchildren will happily munch on cheese day after day. Today, cheese intake is over 30 pounds per person per year. Unfortunately, typical cheeses are about 70% fat, as a percentage of calories, and most of that is saturated fat—the kind that raises cholesterol.

And along with our meat and cheese, we’re munching on French fries, which accounts for a 50-pound rise in oil consumption per person per year compared to a century ago. And we’re polishing our fries off with frozen desserts, particularly ice cream. The average American eats 20 pounds more ice cream per year than a century ago.

So, what’s behind these huge increases? Much of this change reflects the advent of fast-food and pizza restaurants, for which meat, cheese and fryer grease are staples. Also, government subsidies make meat, dairy products and sugar cheaper and more available than they would be otherwise, and government meal programs ensure that children consume these less-than-healthful foods in schools on a daily basis.

But what about sodas? They are commonly blamed for childhood obesity. It’s certainly true that soda intake is way up. But, among children, this rise has been partly compensated for by a drop in milk intake. Nonfat milk has about the same calorie intake as soda, and whole milk is denser in calories than soda. So, calorie-wise, it appears to be nearly a wash.

Bottom line: Americans were moderate meat-eaters a century ago, and are vigorous carnivores today. Cheese intake has exploded, and greasy, sugary foods are more prevalent than ever.

If we turn the clock back a bit, we might see the difference on the scale.

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29 responses to Poor Eating Habits: A Century in the Making
  1. One of the reasons I love Michael Pollan’s Food Rules — it’s all old-fashioned sayings and statements to help us think back to the ways our grandmothers or great-grandmothers used to eat!

  2. kim said on June 22, 2010

    Audra, I love Pollan, too! And treehugger wrote a review on his book! http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/06/michael-pollan-food-rules-book-review.php?campaign=weekly_nl

  3. Not to mention the way the animals were “raised” then vs. now. CAFOs (factory farms) create unhealthy chickens, cows and pigs. You are what you eat. Buy from local farms or go veg!

  4. wow…kinda scary.

  5. The wrong foods are subsidized. Why can’t good quality produce be subsidized. Why is it meat, corn, soy, and sugar?

  6. We must wake up to the powerful influence that marketing and advertising have on us.

    It’s so easy to feel like you are doing the right thing when you eat like everyone else, but alas that’s not the case.

    It’s time for a serious food revolution! Go vegan for the benefit of all beings including our precious planet.

  7. I also think the rise of “low carb” diets has given people the false belief that animal protein is good for us.

    I am amazed at how many educated people worry about getting protein in their diets when if fact we don’t need very much!

  8. 100 years ago we were an agrarian society. We grew or slaughtered what we ate, including beef, buffalo, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys, deer, and if hungry enough skunks, racoons, coyotes, possum, and rats. We were largely malnutritioned society because we were so physically active. Ergo, the industrial revolution and mom leaving home for the workforce during WWII had nothing to do with the need for processed foods to speed the eating process along. This article is a unilaterally biased against progress. Here’s an idea…just eat grass like the cows do…you’re full of bullshit anyway.

  9. I think another component of the eating trends you mentioned is STRESS. Not only the negative impacts that cummulative stress can unleash on the body/weight, but the exhaustion, imbalance, and lack of time that contribute to poor food choices. “oh, I’m too tired to cook.” “I didn’t have time to go grocery shopping.” “I just can’t deal with that right now, let’s go out to eat.” Beyond the advertising/marketing of the poor food choices, they are often easily accessible, in plentiful supply, & often open late. The companies that market many of our packaged/processed foods leverage our lack of time & stressed out lives to their advantage & unfortunately, to our health detriment. So I think ultimately, wiser food choices is also related to making wiser life choices. We as human beings tend to make poorer choices in general when we are exhausted & stressed out.

  10. Mike, why exactly are you visiting CSL, if this is what you believe? This is a site for people interested in natural nutrition. Slow down, and spread your negativity elsewhere.

    Read the article again, and perhaps you’ll see that Dr. Barnard is arguing for BALANCE. Western society has the largest incidence of degenerative disease, the highest incidence of cancer … and we eat the most meat and dairy, the greatest amount of processed foods. Is that a coincidence?

    I certainly would not call it, as you say, “bullshit.”


  11. Some of those statistics are pretty amazing — 1 million chickens per hour — wow! We definitely fight an uphill battle, spending our days in unhealthy food environments. Solving this problem requires a multifaceted approach, but reducing meant consumption and eating real food is a good start. The challenge lies in creating situations where the healthy choice is the easy choice and/or where people value good food enough (and have the time, money, and knowledge) to exert a bit more effort.

  12. People a century ago also consumed an incredible amount of lard and butter and cream — you really shouldn’t leave that out. You’re giving the impression that they ate less fat: in fact they ate more, both absolutely and as a proportion of their diet, than we do. You’re cherry-picking your data a bit.

  13. But Dale, a century ago if you had access to a lot of dairy products, wouldn’t they be fresh from your own farm or a local one? I think before factory farming those products were too expensive for most people to eat in excess, were they not? I am surprised to hear that people were eating more fat than they do today with all the fast food consumption.

    Thank you Dr Barnard for an excellent article.

  14. Lard, butter, & cream keep & travel quite well, much better than milk or fresh produce, so no, I don’t think it was very expensive. & People now throw away the fat from frying bacon, or the skin from chicken, which my grandmother would have called a wicked waste. Virtually everything was cooked in “drippings” or lard or with butter. My grandmother learned to cook in the time you’re discussing, and that’s how she cooked. Lots and lots of fat. (What people *didn’t* do was eat all day. Three meals, and you came when they were ready, and you didn’t snack in between them. And by God you ate your vegetables if you wanted any dessert :->)

  15. *just as a funny side note, this vegan read this article while eating ramen and beer… Don’t eat junk

  16. @Lola, ‘m not trying to spread negativity as much as truth that the premise of this article is flawed. I agree with eating vegetables, but meat and fat has been a staple of the American diet since colonial times of salted pork and wild game. Vegetables and fruits were scarce, therefore, diseases like scurvy and osteoporsis were more prevalent. Improvements in farming, and firearms, and storage met the need to feed a country. Remember the pictures of soup kitchens during the depression? People were starving in the cities, but surviving on the farms where meat, dairy, and vegetables were more available. You also cannot discount the increased physical activity and work required played in obesity a century ago. People are bigger in both stature and largess because we have more foods of all types available, but less physical labor. My family ate lard sandwiches because we were poor and couldn’t afford meat unless we hunted it and used butter to cook. Wild game is leaner than beef and better for you, if you’re worried about fat. So I advocate eat less and work more and hunt for your meat rather than buying it at a grocery. This article is poorly written and unbalanced.

  17. Meat has been in all cultures diets for a long time. That does not make it okay or healthy. Take into consideration all of the processing that goes on with our food in supermarkets, our bodies have to become chemical processing factories. Our food is full of chemicals, including the meat. A century ago the cows and chickens were not given ‘doctored’ feed to kill germs and plump them up. I am a critical care nurse and I can tell you it makes my hair stand on end the patients I have who just gorge themselves on processed, poisonous junk and tons of meat. Our health in this country is not lagging because of bad doctors, it’s because we are not taking good care of ourselves. We are making ourselves sicker by what we put in our mouths. Our bodies are not meant to process the garbage most people eat. I get sicker and younger patients now than I did 25 years ago. You are what you eat. Sounds cliche, but it’s sooooo true.

  18. I am always trying to educate friends and family on this matter. Michael Pollan says it best in his famous quote. I urge people in my life to eat mostly plants and to be selective when it comes to choosing animal products. People just don’t know and it’s our job to tell them in the nicest way possible!

  19. There are always differences from family to family, especially depending on income and location. The statistics are interesting in this article but won’t necessarily hold true for everyone. My dad grew up poor, eating very fattening food because his mom cooked with lard. She died young due to heart disease. I was actually raised much healthier than he was and in turn am raising my own children in, what I believe and this community supports, a very healthy diet and lifestyle. Families haven’t necessarily gotten fatter since the 50s, but socially the food that is pushed is unhealthy (school lunches, WIC program, fast food, convenience food–lunchables,etc.) People do see chicken as a health food and cheese is overeaten.

  20. “1 million chickens per hour” sounds impressive, until you remember that there are 300 million Americans. It divides out to less than one serving of chicken per person per day.

    And what’s with equating soda and milk? Kids can substitute milk for other foods since milk has other nutrients. They can only drink soda _in addition_ to the other foods.

  21. We do not need to eat meat or dairy to survive.

  22. Of course, Dr. Barnard, if you want to be entirely complete on the issue, you should advocate Veganism.

    It’s better for your health (animal foods clearly cause physical harm); it’s better for the environment (animal agriculture is an ecological disaster); and, most importantly, it’s the morally right thing to do. For a more detailed rationale, visit

  23. I found this article when searching for ‘When did meat become so prevalent in America.’ or something to that affect. I have to say I am glad I found this article. I don’t understand why meat eaters cling to meat so desperately. Meat doesn’t heal anything and vegetarian foods are really good and healthy. I blame greed. Enough said. In the end its always greed. Greed feeds on ignorance. The last thing the profiteers want from the people is for them to question and think… I say just keep putting the info out there. The more the better. The truth is always with the vegetarians and even more with the Vegans.

  24. I agree with not eating much meat and eating vegetables and fruit. However, I have osteoporosis. My doctors have told me to get calcium with skim milk, cheese, yogurt, Evista, and Tums. If I don’t, I will get fractures and have much pain when I am older (I’m 58). I am small. I don’t consume huge amounts of food, so eating copious amounts of calcium laden vegetables to get an equal amount of calcium that I get from dairy foods is not an option. How can the dairy component be harmful to me when it is necessary for my bone health?

  25. I have a question. What about yogurt? Yogurt is considered dairy? Do you eat yogurt? Is it also an inflamatory food? Thank You for your reply.

  26. With all do respect to this website and its authors, I disagree with the majority of this article. It is providing a very narrow view on the reasons for weight grain, and focusing entirely on animal proteins and fats as the culprits.

    The author of this article goes back to records “as far as 1909” to conclude that the main reason for the rise in obesity is the increase in animal meat consumption. He then proceeds to blame increased milk consumption for causing the rising rates of obesity in children.

    However, he fails to note that in the last 20 years, our intake of sugar has also increased. It increased 24% resulting in a total intake of 135 pounds of sugar per person per year. Prior to the turn of the century, the average was only 5 pounds.

    This author of this article assumes that fat and animal meats containing fats correlates directly with weight gain. I encourage this author to read the book called “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” in which Dr. Weston A. Price conducted a wide-spanning 10-year study to examine the nutrition of the most remote cultures of the world. There were some cultures that subsisted on mostly protein and fat (the Inuit) and some entirely on animal protein, blood, and milk (the Maasai Indians on Africa). What he saw were amazingly healthy individuals with strong teeth and bones and far less chronic disease than those in industrialized nations.

    So what was the main difference between their diets and ours? Processed foods. Sugars. Refined grains. Unhealthy fats and oils. These are the things that cause chronic health issues such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. He found that once these once-remote peoples began trading with other neighboring villages to obtain these processed foods, their health declined. Tooth decay became more rampant, more diseases were present, and even facial bone structures changed. Their health more closely mimicked ours.

    In fact, until about 10,000 years ago, our ancestors subsisted on a hunter-gatherer diet comprised of (you guessed it!) animal meats, animal organs, animal fats, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and the occasional sources of sugar in fruits and honey.

    If anybody studies basic human physiology, the main reason for weight gain is due to extra glucose sugars present in our bloodstream. Whether that be in the form of starch like bread or potatoes, or in the form of sugar like soda or candy, when our body has high glucose levels, we store that glucose as fat. It’s a famine survival technique. But because sugars and starches are so rampant in society today, we always have excess blood glucose levels, and therefore are storing fat all the time!

    Here is an article that indicates that weight gain is linked with sugar consumption:

    An article that takes a closer look at the Inuit diet (high protein, high fat):

    If anybody is interested in this, I highly recommend you to read the following books:


    I only present this as another opinion so that one can make a more informed choice about what they should eat to be healthy.

  27. Thank you for this. There are two of the other differences that I notice, most especially as I use recipes from books I used when first married 40 years ago:

    1.portion size. Recipes would feed 4 or 6 and now you look at the portion size and it looks very small. It is, in fact, what it should have been.

    2.The second thing, is that people eat all day long; the coffee cup eternally on the desk, the muffin at the ready; children having a snack at recess, and again at 4. Whatever happened to an apple, or ‘go out and play’ dinner is nearly ready.

    Excellent article, I’ll share it everywhere & hope…

  28. Hi Kris after reading your book I’m left speecheless. I’ve also seen you on the Lisa Zo show hats off to you….. Just amazing. Thanks for sharing your information with the masses.