Poor Eating Habits: A Century in the Making
June 22, 2010
By Neal Barnard, MD
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.