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.
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.