Where Do Americans Get Their Calories? (Infographic)

In the past 20 years, obesity rates rose dramatically in the U.S. In many states nearly a third of adults are now obese. Where exactly are Americans getting the calories to grow their girths? How many more calories are being consumed than in previous decades?

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.

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This post is part of an ongoing partnership between Civil Eats and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism News21 course on food reporting. Over the next several months we will regularly feature stories from students in the class.

57 thoughts on “Where Do Americans Get Their Calories? (Infographic)

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  5. I guess I need to delve into this further, but I know as a population one change is we get added grains by processing them through animals such as the cows, pigs, chicken, turkey, eggs, and now even fish. To make those taste good we put them on bread with corn sugar-sweetened sauces such as ketchup and mayo after cooking them in essentially rancid fats.

    Make no mistake, meats, dairy, and eggs are processed foods with lots of added hormones, antibiotics and plenty of biocides to keep the animals from dying before being killed, that are then processed further into other value-added items such as branded taco meats, frozen dinners, crackers, cookies, cupcakes, Jell-o, fast food franchises, etc.

    As for the veggies, I wonder how much of those come in the form of potatoes and of those how much are fried, hashed, or baked then slathered in sour cream, cheese, and bacon. Oh, maybe garlic-mashed where potatoes make up the least of the calories…

    And I know personally, my nut consumption went way down when they were being vilified as being fatty but now that’s the only thing I eat in the big bubble of “protein” (which is such as stupid category as all foods except sugars and some alcohols have protein) so I do wonder how much of the shift from plant protein to animal protein was within that circle.

    I’d bet there is a huge shift too in the consumption of corn and soy products including soy protein used to supplement meat products (yes, in all irony those who consume animal products are actually a much bigger demand on soy production than those who do not).

    We are able to make different personal choices despite what is heaped on our plates by Big Farma (though that does include voting and even getting involved in policy). That first choice often means getting educated not just in nutrition but also in how we get played into thinking something has it by those trying to sell it.

    But yeah, it’s not about the calories, or even calories in, calories out; it is about the nutrition! Calories are just the vehicle nutrition arrives in and a lot of calories these days are in Hummers instead of Bicycles. While the Hummer fills up our garages (needing bigger garages even) it doesn’t get us very far before needing more inputs.

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  7. Nice and fun interactive graphic. But why did you use circles? I agree with Andrew, #30. It would be even more illuminating if it were bar charts or stacked bar, so you could see not only what parts are going up but that the total is too.