First the bad news: Americans are consuming more calories than they did in 1970.
Now the good news: At least we’re consuming slightly less than we did in the year 2000. And more of the calories that we are consuming are coming from more healthful vegetables, such as kale and sweet potatoes.
This information comes from a recent report by the USDA, which developed the numbers in an unusual (but predictably agriculture-centered) way. The report looked at all the calories available for consumption and then subtracted the expected amount of food waste along with the spoilage from farm to market, the weight of bones, pits and other unusable parts of produce.
Looking at the data this way yields some intriguing information about the way our diet has changed. On average, we now have 57 pounds more commercially grown vegetables available to eat per person than we did in 1970, 20 pounds more fruit, 37 pounds more poultry and 3 pounds more fish and shellfish.
Clearly, the trend is for more healthful foods. And so is the flip side of the numbers: We have 36 pounds less red meat, 46 fewer eggs, 8 gallons less coffee (is this a good thing?) and 13 gallons less milk (again, is this a good thing?).
So not only are we eating better — exceptions being in increased amounts of cheese and processed grains — but we also are given new evidence in the ability of the market to adjust quickly to new demands. And it is a testament to the way farmers are getting more production out of less land.
Even with these differences in specific items, though, the bigger numbers remain tenaciously the same from 2000 to 2010. We still get 30 percent of our calories from animal-based sources (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, added animal fats) and 70 percent from plant-based (fruit, vegetables, grain, nuts, added plant fats and oils and, interestingly, added sugar and sweeteners).
The numbers from the subgroups changed a little bit over that decade — the amount of calories from meat, poultry and fish dropped by 5 percent; the amount from plant-based fats and oils rose by 8 percent — but there was one subgroup that showed a sharp increase.
In just 10 years, the average American increased his calorie consumption from nuts by an astonishing 25 percent. In that time, nuts went from being considered too fattening to be healthy to being thought too healthy to be fattening.
The nut that showed the biggest increase in consumption is almonds. We’re eating almost twice as many almonds as we did in 2000. Peanuts, which are still the most consumed nut in America, showed a more modest increase.
According to the government’s dietary guidelines, adults (on a 2,000 calorie diet) should eat about 5 ounces of nuts, seeds and soy products each week. The equivalent of two teaspoons of peanut butter a day will do it.
But even knowing the government dietary recommendations does not mean that we are hitting the numbers, or even coming close. On the whole, we are getting about 30 percent more than the recommended amount of our calories from meat, and about 12 percent more of our calories from grains.