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Publication: Nutrition Action Health Letter
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 11581
ISSN: 08857792
Journal code: INTR

The American diet wasn't always dominated by burgers, chicken nuggets, fries, pizza, soft drinks, and sweets.

A century ago, we consumed more grains and milk and less beef, chicken, cheese, oils, sugar, pickles, and ketchup.

But our diets are still in flux. So every few years, we use data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to check up on what Americans are eating.

The USDA's data track the quantities of food that are available for us to eat. Even though the USDA adjusts for the food that gets thrown out or spoiled, the data probably still overestimate what we actually swallow. Nevertheless, the numbers are valid for year-to-year comparisons.

The "grades" look not just at the foods' impact on our health and the environment, but at whether or not we're moving in the right direction.

Here's the latest report card.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meat, Poultry, & Seafood: B-

The average American now eats roughly 120 pounds of meat, poultry, and seafood a year, about twice what we ate before World War II. The damage: beef and pork appear to raise the risk of colon cancer and heart disease.

Although all meat and poultry harm the environment, beef uses the most water and emits the most greenhouse gases.

One bright spot: chicken and fish are less likely to be fried in partially hydrogenated oil than they were five years ago.

Dairy: C

Since 1970. we've tripled our cheese consumption, thanks (mostly) to the Cheddar and mozzarella that have moved from our pizzas, burgers, steaks, salads, chicken, fries. and nachos to our arteries and waistlines.

As if mega-servings of fries and nachos weren't trouble enough without the cheese.

Some good news: full-fat ice cream keeps moving downward (though it's still twice as popular as low-fat). We'd be better off with less of both sweets.

Another plus: we're eating twice as much yogurt as in the mid-1990s. Most of it is sweetened, but at least it's largely low-fat.

Flour & Cereal: C

We now eat 25 percent more grains than we did in 1970. Hello? Does anyone think we're 25 percent more active? Check your midsection to find out.

White and whole wheat flour (the USDA lumps them together) have dropped since the late 1990s. But corn flour and rice keep moving up.

From bagels and pita chips to granola bars, scones, muffins, and cupcakes, it's a sea of (mostly) white flour out there.

Beverages: C

Regular soft drinks are still king in the beverage department, especially if you add "fruit drinks" (which are largely uncarbonated soda). Both have dropped since he late 1990s, but not enough.

In contrast, bottled water continues its meteoric rise. The water is good for our health (assuming it's calorie-free), but the 50 billion plastic bottles a year that the water comes in are bad for the earth.

Fats & Oils: B+

Relax. The big jump in total added fats in 2000 may reflect a big jump in the number of companies reporting data on oil production to the USDA, not a change in how much oil we eat.

Since 2000, we've mostly changed which fats we (or food companies) add to our foods.

We've shifted from shortening and margarine to liquid oils, mostly to minimize heart-threatening trans fat. That's good news. (Bonus: many brands of margarine and shortening have less trans than they used to.)

Milk: B

Whole milk keeps dropping, and 2% reduced-fat milk is holding steady. (That's probably because many people think that 2% milk has much less fat. In fact, it's not much better than whole milk, which is about 3.3% fat.)

Together, low-fat (1/2% and 1%) milk plus fat-free (skim) milk make up almost a third of the market. It should be more.

Also troubling: chocolate (and other flavored) milk keeps climbing. Who needs the extra sugar?

Fruits & Vegetables: A-

Even without potatoes (which are more like refined flour than a vegetable), gies are on the upswing.

The most popular-onions, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce-are served with fast-food burgers. But romaine and leaf lettuce have quadrupled since so we're also eating more salads.

Fruit is flat. Most leaders-like bananas, apples, strawberries, grapes, and watermelon- are holding steady.

Sweeteners: D+

America has started to curb its sweet tooth, but we've got a long way to go.

Each of us still eats about 100 pounds of sugars (roughly half of it cane or beet sugar and half of it high-fructose corn syrup) per year. That's a lot of Coke, Pepsi', SunnyD, Dunkin' Donuts, Cinnabons. Mrs. Fields, Frosted Flakes, and Skittles

Sugars raise triglycerides and pad our bellies. Surely, life was sweet enough in 1970, when we ate 85 pounds per year. Target: Eat no more than 100 calories' worth of sugar per day if you're a woman or 150 calories if you're a man. That's 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) a day for women and 38 grams (9 teaspoons) for men.

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