A Fat Nation
America's `supersize' diet is fattier and sweeter--and deadlier
Over the past 50 years, as technology has reduced movement in daily life, the American diet has also changed, paralleling a revolution in food production. "The energy intensity of the human diet is going up," says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Human beings are eating more calories per bite than their ancestors ate. "The most common changes," Popkin explains, "are the added sugar in processed food and the added fat."
Before World War II, food was grown on small family farms and sold to local stores. Changes in farming practices resulted in an abundance of food, and innovations in processing, packaging, preservation, and refrigeration allowed products to be transported across continents. Companies made use of the new technology to produce a previously unimagined variety of processed and packaged foods and beverages. Today, a dozen or so food giants--so-called Big Food--produce, distribute, and sell much of what the world eats.
Without question the food industry has delivered something unique in human history: a dependable, low-cost food supply. "But now, food is so overproduced in the U.S. that there are 3,800 calories per person per day, and we only need about half of that," says Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. Judy Putnam, who studies food and nutritional patterns for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agrees. USDA food-supply data show a 500-calorie-per-person daily increase between 1984 and 2000. Similarly, the USDA's dietary intake surveys show a 236-calorie-per-person-per-day increase between 1987 and 1995. Even that smaller estimate translates into an average 24-pound weight gain per person every year. Putnam figures that about 39 percent of the increase comes from refined grains, 32 percent from added fats, and 24 percent from more sugar.
Hard to believe, but Americans consume the equivalent of 20 to 33 teaspoons of sugar per person per day. About 30 percent of it is in soft drinks, but sugar is also the No. 1 additive. It is found in a variety of foods, says Putnam: "It turns up in some unlikely places, such as pizza, bread, hot dogs, soup, crackers, spaghetti sauce, lunchmeat, canned vegetables, fruit drinks, flavored yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, and mayonnaise."
Greater use of prepared foods may have increased calories, but so has another major cultural change: eating out. Restaurant meals generally contain more fat, including more saturated fat, less fiber, more cholesterol, and more calories than homemade meals. In 1977-78, Americans ate about 19 percent of their total calories out. By 1995, they were eating 34 percent of their calories away from home. "The size of this increase is enormous," says UNC's Popkin, who analyzes the USDA's dietary surveys. "There has been a more than doubling of the calories consumed at restaurants and fast-food establishments over the past two decades."
That's in part because when people do eat out, they eat more--one result of the supersizing trend that's sweeping the market. "The food is the least of the cost of a food product. Labor, packaging, marketing cost more," says NYU's Nestle. "So, it's very profitable to make larger portions." When McDonald's opened, its original burger, fries, and 12-ounce Coke provided 590 calories. Today, a supersize Extra Value Meal with a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, supersize fries, and a supersize drink is 1,550 calories. An order of movie theater popcorn was about 3 cups in 1957. Now, the typical medium theater popcorn is 16 cups and 900 calories. A 7-Eleven 64-ounce Double Gulp has nearly 800 calories, 10 times as many as the original 6.5-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola.