Where Do Americans Get Their Calories? (Infographic)

Nutrition

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.

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  1. Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    This is really interesting, thanks for sharing!
  2. Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    We know that many people are eating more fat and calories than they need. And this infographic data proved it again! People of America, especially to obese, shouldn't ignore exercise on physical and mental health.
  3. Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    Very cool! Quick question. Where you able to determine which foods are most likely to have "added fats."
  4. Leslie
    Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    I think another thing we don't think about is the calories and negative side effects from wheat grain. We have been on a gluten free diet due to ADD concerns and I cannot tell you the difference it has made in my family's diet, health, and general physical well being. I know there have been no studies that show that gluten free does anything for anyone who doesn't have Celiac disease, but the anecdotal evidence in my household is enough for me. A big problem with American diets is the plague of the monoculture. We eat a few kinds wheat and corn in EVERYTHING. I wouldn't doubt that is having its effect on our waistlines.
  5. Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    Hi Ralph, the USDA has a list of foods that they consider to be "added fats", and you can get a spreadsheet breaking down their consumption.
  6. Ruthmarie
    Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    My issue with wheat more than other grains is how much hybridizing has been done to it (not to mention GMO in corn) ... there are now many new proteins created that our systems are not suited to digest. Yet we ingest so much of it that medicine is puzzled and amazed by the mysterious problems that seem to have no source. And no solution other than a simple shift of diet. Less wheat, more, MORE vegetables and fruits every day, forget the processed sugar. Not what Big Ag or Corporate Food wants the general populace to know.
  7. Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    I think an important distinction to make is that "added fat" is usually in the form of industrial seed oils (corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower) or trans fats made from these oils. Industrial oils are inherently rancid - any oil that is high in polyunsaturates, as all the seeds mentioned are, will become rancid during processing and when exposed to light (think clear plastic containers....). Most of these oils are extracted with harsh chemical solvents.....think about it, if you crushed a soy bean, how much oil do you think would come out of it? Not enough to be cost effective, that is for sure. So solvents are used to extract the oil. Contrary to popular belief, these oils are NOT healthy! Natural fats like butter, ghee, coconut and palm oils, olive oil, dairy fat, and meat fat are perfectly healthy (with the caveat that animal fats should come from healthy animals eating a natural diet, ie. not from factory farms).

    Incidentally, look how much grain and sugar consumption has gone up in the same time period!!! White flour, sugar, and vegetable oils are the things that need to be removed from our diets for weight loss.
  8. Stephanie
    Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
    This illustrates the problem very well. So consumption of foods rich in natural, saturated fat didn't really change much, but grain consumption sure did! And added fats? I'd have to guess that means vegetable oils, crisco, trans fats and the like.

    It sure doesn't seem like saturated fat is the problem. Looks to me like grains, canola oil and sugar are the culprits - two of which are *supposedly* the healthy options, according to most "experts".

    Interesting graphic for sure, but not surprising to some of us.
  9. jane
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    Great graph!! Never seen anything interactive like that. Kudos!
  10. Michele
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    Let me first say that I think this representation of data is outstanding. The USDA methodologies also seem to be sound.

    However, I'd like to point out that simply looking at calories can be a little misleading. Gram for gram, fruits and vegetables are less calorie dense than grains, meat, and dairy. Thus, even people who eat a lot of fruits and veggies may still get the majority of their calories from these other sources.
  11. Tim M
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    Fun graphic but I believe the data would provide more insights if it were displayed as simple line-graphs - with time on the x-axis and each food-type represented as a separate colored line.

    This would allow the user to see simple trends and connect those trends directly to other events, such as policy changes or technological "advances."
  12. AK
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    I've tried three different browsers and can't get the infographic to show up. Anything I should download to be able to see it?
    • pcrossfield
      Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
      Hi AK,

      You have to have Java installed on your computer. Thanks for reading!

      Paula
  13. PilarJ
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    I think in this context, the calorie numbers are not misleading at all - a 23% increase in calories!?!? That coupled with the decrease in the amount of exercise we get is enough to explain most of the obesity increases.

    Certainly the QUALITY of those calories isn't helping, either.
  14. Lizzy
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    We're eating a full meal (on average) more than we did in the 70s. Wow.

    Also, interesting to note we eat more veggie calories since then, but of course more sugar, fat and meat too. Hmmmmm.
  15. t e whalen
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    Looking at the underlying data, it shows an astonishing 33% increase in the use of shortening from 1999 to 2000, without an offsetting decrease in any other source of fat. I'm not sure that actually happened.
  16. Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    I was surprised to see that the increase in calories came from almost every category, I was expecting sugar or fat to be way larger. It seems that Americans are simply just eating MORE these days! I think that portion control is definitely something to think about.
  17. masha
    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
    This kind of data really should be presented with a stacked bar graph, i.e. calories with respect to time. It would be much easier to understand the message of the data. Which I believe is that calories from meat, vegetables and dairy have remained relatively constant, while grains, sugars and added fats have increased, increasing the total calories consumed in the process.
  18. chris Casey
    Thursday, April 7th, 2011
    Visually, this infographic actually hides the REAL story which is that the total calorie intake went up by almost 25% between 1970 and 2008. the big white bubble should also be changing size, not just the little bubbles inside. Yes, the added fat going up is important, but that's within the bigger picture. This inconsistently mixes numerals and bubble size as a information system.
  19. Thursday, April 7th, 2011
    This is some really interesting data, but some of it may be lost in the visualization. It is very difficult for readers to compare values as different-sized circles. Although fat consumption increased 56% over the time period, the change does not appear that large. A bar chart might be more useful, as people are better at comparing length then area.
  20. CF
    Friday, April 8th, 2011
    This data doesn't make sense. If it approximates the increase in the amount of calories we consumed then we would ON AVERAGE all be gaining 50 lbs per year more than in 1970. We're obese, but not that obese.
  21. bo
    Friday, April 8th, 2011
    the stuff on the outside ailse in a store are generally better for you than the stuff in the middle ailse------never eat combined foods
  22. Franklin Ettinger
    Friday, April 8th, 2011
    What explains the jump in fat intake between 1999 and 2000? That accounts for about 1/5 of the total calorie increase so its kind of a big deal. Is it a change in measurement system? Did depression over the 2000 presidential election results lead to it?
  23. jennifer
    Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
    we all need to eat batter
  24. Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
    The result of this insatiable appetite? Insatiable thirst. Check out the annual water footprint of this average daily American diet. http://www.waterdeva.com/blog/?p=415
  25. Jim
    Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
    Very interesting. What would make the story even more interesting would be an overlay of a measure of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the increasing rate of obesity, and incidences of related health effects such as heart disease, diabetes, etc. Finally, the increasing cost burden to this nation would be good. My experience is that we have to paint the picture using the "big crayons" for those we entrust with setting policy. That said, even by dumbing it down and making the case as clear as possible (eg, climate change), there are those who will deny.
  26. John S.
    Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
    The sudden jump in added fats from ~500 to ~600 from 1999 - 2000 is fishy, I don't buy it. It looks to me like a change in accounting method or something, since there is no annual change I am aware of that would support such a large discontinuity in a category which was stable before and after.

    Also, if you extend the graph back to 1900, you'd see calories were at 1980's levels in the 1910'a, with a much higher percentage of grain consumption - yet the population was much thinner. (courtesy of USDA via Megan McArdle, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/04/are-grains-making-us-fat/237030/) and (http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/publications/foodsupply/foodsupply1909-2004report.pdf)

    This study needs to be extended back further to get to meaningful answers.
  27. Verde
    Friday, April 15th, 2011
    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.
  28. Connie
    Monday, April 18th, 2011
    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.
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