America's Eating Habits

Article excerpt

In America, today, poor diets are typically too high in calories and fats, and too low in fruits and vegetables--problems associated with certain chronic diseases and obesity.

These words, in the introductory remarks of a report recently issued by U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS), depict recent (long-term) changes in American eating habits, and the consequences resulting from the changes. The report is one in a series of several critical reports recently issued by ERS on the status of the current American diet, and the implications. Other reports focus on the growing trend of eating away from home, and its impact on the decline of quality in the American diet; the current diet of American children; and an assessment of actual food consumption by Americans, compared with official recommendations.

These reports, examined in toto, confirm and give added weight to concerns already expressed by many nutritionists, dietitians, health practitioners, and public health officials. All groups have reported findings, based on clinical studies, that current American eating habits are poor, and apt to get poorer, due to changes in eating patterns.

The reports serve as a wake-up call. They deserve study and discussion. These are some of the highlights:

More Americans than ever are overweight, fiber consumption is low, and snack foods are as popular as ever ... Americans are eating more and exercising less ... Consumers eat three meals a day, quench their thirst with carbonated beverages, and constantly nibble on snacks. Is it any wonder that by the end of the day few of us know how many calories we have ingested, let alone our fat intake? ... Clearly, counting grams of fat is more difficult for food purchased from the local hamburger joint, a sidewalk vendor, or a supermarket deli [than from home-prepared foods]...

Eating Away from Home. The frequency of eating away from home rose by more than two-thirds over the past two decades, from 16% of all meals and snacks in 1977-78 to 27% by 1995 (the latest year examined in the report). It is anticipated that the trend will continue. Regarding the health consequences of this trend, ERS found that foods prepared and eaten at home generally contain less fat and less saturated fat, but more fiber, calcium, and iron, than foods eaten away from home. The report notes that, in recent years, the nutritional content of foods eaten at home had improved more than those eaten away from home.

"American consumers are inching ever closer to a dining watershed," the report notes. "The continued growing popularity of eating away from home has brought Americans to the verge of spending as much on food away from home as they do on food prepared at home." In 1970, 34% of the food dollars were spent on food away from home; today, it has risen to 46%. If a baseline had been chosen for a time period prior to 1970, the percentage would have been extremely low.

The consequences of this trend are especially important with American children. A USDA survey found that 88% of children age 6 to 18 have poor diets. An ERS report raised questions about nutrient intake by children eating more and more of their meals away from home. This trend indicates a lessening of control over what children eat, how the food is prepared, and the nutrient quality of the diet. For example, broccoli and kale are not likely to be on menus where children choose to eat. The potatoes are likely to be deep-fried, not baked. White potatoes will be available, but sweet potatoes are not apt to be on the menu. The limited food offerings probably will be high in fat, low in essential nutrients such as calcium and iron and contain added sugars and salt.

Recommended vs. Actual Food Consumption. Perhaps the most discouraging news of all is contained in ERS's report: A Dietary Assessment of the U.S. Food Supply. The study compares actual food consumption with official recommendations. …