Wednesday, May 21, 2014

You Are What You Eat

Way back in 1980, the U.S. Federal government released the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a series of dietary recommendations for Americans aged 2 and over to prevent the risk of chronic diseases and to assist in the maintenance of healthy body weight.  These guidelines include the following three goals:

1.) Balance calories with physical activity to manage weight.

2.) Consume more of certain foods and nutrients such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products and seafood.

3.) Consume fewer foods with sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars and refined grains.

There are different USDA food plans that are designed to meet the requirements of households of different ages, numbers of family members and income levels.

Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers, the body that provides research and economic information from the United States Department of Agriculture, undertook two studies that looked at how much consumers were spending on healthy choices and unhealthy choices as outlined above over the years from 1998 to 2006.  Households recorded their food and beverage purchases of over 60,000 different products into the 23 USDA food plan categories with the beverage group consisting of all soft drinks and fruit drinks, the processed products which include dairy products, soups, frozen or refrigerated dinners and refined and whole grains and fresh or minimally processed products like frozen beans and canned tomatoes.

Now for the graphic showing the results of average at-home household spending on each of the 23 food categories (in blue) compared to the USDA recommended level of spending (in yellow):

Of the 23 categories, you will note that household spending on only one category came close to what the USDA recommends; potatoes.  Spending on refined grains which includes cookies, breads, pasta and non-whole grain crackers consumed 17 percent of household spending on food rather than the 5 percent total recommended by the USDA.  Spending on sugar and candies represented nearly 14 percent of household spending on food rather than the fraction of a percent recommended by the USDA.  On the flip side, spending on whole fruits consumed just over 4 percent of total household food expenditures rather than the 16 percent recommended by the USDA and spending on legumes was less than 0.5 percent compared to the 8 percent recommended by USDA guidelines.

Just in case you thought that there was a relationship between certain socio-economic factors and spending on less than healthy food, according to the data, the quality of diets in American households is not particularly related to economic standing or demographic and geographic differences for that matter.

One of the problems is the growing portion of fast food in American diets over the past three and a half decades as shown here (in purple):

Fast food contribution to total dietary caloric intake has risen from 3.1 percent in the mid-late 1970s to 13.2 percent in the years between 2005 and 2008.

What has all of this led to?

Here is a map showing obesity rates by state in 2012:

Here is a bar graph showing how obesity rates have risen in the United States from 1988 - 1994 to 2005 - 2008 by income level (PIR or poverty income ratio):

Over the period, the prevalence of obesity among men with income at or above 350 percent of the poverty level rose from 18 percent to 32.9 percent, an increase of 83 percent.  The prevalence of obesity among women with incomes at or above 350 percent of the poverty level rose from 18.6 percent to 29 percent.  Interestingly, among low income women with incomes less than 130 percent of the poverty level, obesity rates rose only slightly over the time period, however, the rate rose from a substantial 34.5 percent of women to a stunning 42 percent of women.  As well, the data shows that the obesity rate for all educational levels rose with men with some college education having the highest obesity rates (36.2 percent) and women with less than high school education having the highest obesity rates (42.1 percent).

While the dietary recommendations made by the USDA are not the complete answer to the plague of obesity affecting American society, perhaps keeping in mind that health care costs are ever on the rise will be motivation in itself as a prod to adopt a more healthy overall lifestyle.


  1. Not sure if im just a dummy but i had to look up what Legumes were: beans, lentils, peas, peanuts. That said I eat unhealthy sometimes but at least I know what a carb, fat, or protien is just by looking at a food. Education fails big time at this most people don't understand the most basic things about eating healthy, let alone how to make a healthy meal.

    1. Don't be fooled - one can never know the carb, fat or protein content by just looking at a food. I was recently surprised to learn that spinach is 30% protein (and beef is 40%!).

  2. Obesity is a huge problem and growing larger, it already cost America over $190 billion a year. Obesity accounts for about 21% of the amount spent on medical services and is set to rise much higher. If current trends continue, by 2030 the estimate is obesity will probably cost the country $550 billion a year. More on this growing problem in the article below.

  3. It happens that I just started cooking a big pot of split pea soup, and I see that the USDA thinks people are eating far too much soup. Uh, oh. But then I see also that we eat too few legumes.

  4. Does anyone know what happened to A Political Junkie? HE was posting nearly daily its been some time now...