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Where Do Americans Get Their Calories?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

A few weeks ago, CivilEats posted an extremely intriguing infographic regarding the amount of calories the average American is getting, and exactly where these calories are coming from.

Andrea Jezovit explains:

The United State Department of Agriculture’s loss-adjusted food availability data is one window into where those extra calories come from. While the data does not quite show what is on the average American’s plate, it does provide a pretty good picture of what the population has been consuming since the 1970s. Data on the availability of different foods per capita is adjusted for losses like spoilage and waste. Take for example the produce that goes bad at grocery stores or the leftovers tossed into the compost. By calculating such food losses, the USDA data closely approximates the amount of food that actually makes its way from the farm into the average American stomach. (Restaurant waste is not included, however; read the full documentation for more detail.)

The below infographic illustrates “calories available per day per capita”  as a plate of different food groups that grow or shrink depending on how many calories were produced that year.  What does the data show? Between 1970 and 1980, calorie intake is relatively stable, rising only 1.2 percent. Between 1980 and 1990 consumption jumped 9.6 percent. Then, from 1990 to 2008, the last year with data available, the number of calories rises another 11.4 percent for a grand a total of 2,673 calories available per person–23.3 percent more than consumed in 1970.

In the context of food production history in the US, you have to know that the early ’70s is important because of the initial advent of chemical processing without labeling. That means that non-food items were allowed to be used in “food products” – hyphenated and polysyllabic ingredients abounded – and the face of processed food started to change drastically.

I’m going to try to paste the actual infographic into this post, but the two things that are most important to notice are the differences between the graphic’s findings in 1970 and the findings in 2008. I’m going to compare the two here:

  • In 1970, 463 calories came from meat. In 2008? 482.
  • In ’70, 70 calories came from fruit. In ’08? 86.
  • In ’70, 267 came from dairy. In ’08? 257.
  • In 70, 410 calories came from added fat. In 2008, there was 641.
  • In 1970, 402 calories came from added sugar. In ’08, there were 459.
  • In 1970, 125 calories came from veggies. In 2008, 122.
  • In 1970, 432 calories came from grains. In 2008, there were 625.
  • The total in 1970 of all these calories is 2,168. The 2008 total is 2,673.

The reality, here, is that 1,725 calories of what’s available to the average American in 2008… come from nutritionally poor resources: added fat, added sugar and grains. Think about that – out of 2,673 calories, more than half come from nutritionally poor resources.

And while the vegetable count is rather low – it’s kind of amusing that it’s still almost the same, considering the issues Americans have with veggies – keep in mind that you can easily get three servings of veggies for under 100 calories. (This is also why I promote veggies so hardcore for weight loss. Get a lot for a little.)

The USDA’s Food Availability chart defines “added fats” as butter, margarine, lard, beef tallow, shortening, salad oils, cooking oils, sour cream, heavy cream, cream cheese and basic whipping cream. Considering how a staple in most processed foods is some variation of genetically modified soybean, corn or cottonseed oil, how likely is it that that’s the source of the extra 231 calories?

In fact, considering how many of us admittedly indulge in processed foods, how likely is it that this looks a lot like our consumption habits?

Now, mind you – this only talks about the amount of calories made available for each person. This doesn’t measure on average what was purchased or used. The USDA couldn’t possibly measure that. That being said… what does this mean for our health? Added fats (arguably coming from cooking oils, considering the rise in their prevalence thanks to genetic modifications), added sugars and added grains – easily the three least necessary categories, and the three categories containing the most processed elements – experienced growth that accounts for enough calories for an extra meal! What do we do?

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Linda April 28, 2011 - 2:54 PM

What’s interesting to me is that “added” sugars” increased by a mere(?!) twelve percent—far below the percentages “added fats” and grains.

I would have thought the amount would be far, far bigger given how many times we discussed added sugar in everything these days.

What do you think, E?

Erika Nicole Kendall April 28, 2011 - 3:39 PM

I think that table sugar has been replaced in a lot of ways by HFCS and I think THAT is where a lot of the additional calories come from as well as might’ve replaced some sugar production, as well.

I may do some digging to see if sugar production in the US has decreased in the past few years…. and I’d also want to see the breakdown of the increase of caloric availability of HFCS vs table sugar.

Linda April 29, 2011 - 8:13 PM

Right—-hfcs would be considered a “grain” rather than “added sugar”—which explains the explosion of additional calories of “grain” (rather than trying to blame the increase on all those tempting bagels eaten over the years…)

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