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Fat-matics: The Numbers Behind the Obesity Epidemic

By David Grotto, RD, LDN

Overweight

The beginnings of the Western diet can actually be traced back some 10,000 years ago. It was at this point in history that we began growing and eating grains while also raising livestock for food. Our diet was pretty “clean” until the post-World War Two era. Not surprisingly, along with some amazing technological advances in food safety and packaging came a new focus on convenience, extended shelf life, and making foods fun.

Calories have increased and physical activity has decreased– surprise! From a nutrition standpoint, the most significant change in our calorie intake occurred between the 1950s and the present day. According to data from the USDA Economic Research Service, calorie intake in the United States jumped from an average of 1,900 calories per person in the late 50s to 2,661 calories per person in 2008 – a whopping 761 calories in nearly a sixty year span of time. Some experts mark the start of our current obesity epidemic to somewhere between the 1970s and early 1980s. Interestingly enough, the bulk of the calorie increase I was just talking about (530 calories worth) occurred between 1970 until 2000. Do the math here. Take 530 calories x 365 days a year and that’s an extra 193,450 calories a year! So what does that mean in extra pounds? That’s an extra 55 pounds! So, why the big jump on calories?

Guess where the bulk of the calorie increase came from? Meat consumption? Nope! Surely it must be the bags of sugar we eat each and every day, right? Well, close, but not exactly. The truth is the bulk of the calorie increase came from grains — mainly from the processed white flour stuff, NOT whole grain consumption — followed by added fats, then by added sugar calories, then finally the additional calories from bigger portions of everything else! Perhaps not surprisingly, overall dairy calories have decreased mainly because of the switch from full fat whole milk to non-fat skim milk but also because of a simultaneous drop in fluid milk consumption, which fell by 41 percent by the year 2004 in comparison with the 1950s. But since the 1950s, cheese consumption has increased fourfold. And that’s not even going into the fact that our calories burned now through physical activity pales in comparison to the 1950s.

Advice not heeded. Every five years we receive advice on how to turn the boat around. And every five years, I hear from so many people on how the Dietary Guidelines for Americans simply don’t work. Are the guidelines the problem or simply our unwillingness to follow them? Though it’s too early to tell how much of the advice from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) we are heeding, if history has taught us anything, probably not too much.  If we take a look at how we fared in comparison to the 2005 set of DGA, Americans consumed:

  • far more refined grains, fewer whole grains (less than one-third of the recommendations)
  • more total, saturated and trans fats mainly from snack chips and dressings, grain-based desserts, cheese, high fat meats, pizza, fried potatoes, dairy desserts, and whole milk
  • an average of 30 teaspoons of added sugars and sweeteners per day, or 24 percent of total calorie intake. About 37 percent of added sugars consumed in America are from sweetened carbonated beverages.
  • 0.9 cups of fruit (including fresh and processed varieties), less than half of the recommendation, and 1.7 cups of vegetables (including fresh and processed varieties), about 68 percent of what’s recommended each day.
  • an average of 6.5 oz of meat or about 16% more than what’s recommended
  • 1.8 cup equivalents of milk/milk products each day, or about 60 percent of the daily recommendation
  • an estimated average of 15.2 grams of dietary fiber each day or about 54%, or about half of the recommended intake level
  • Twice as many alcohol calories as they did in 1978, making alcohol the second highest contributor of calories behind sugar sweetened beverages
  • 3,330mg of sodium per day, significantly higher than the 2,300mg of sodium currently recommended and over twice the recommendation for nearly 70% of the population
  • average daily potassium intake of 2,509 milligrams, slightly more than half (53 percent) of the recommendation. Less than 3 percent of the population is meeting potassium recommendations.

It’s pretty simple, really. It’s not wheat that makes our bellies big – it’s too many belly- busting calories from nutrient- and fiber-void refined grains. It’s not high fructose corn syrup that’s the problem – it’s too much darn sugar, period! What about those healthy, nutrient-rich foods that we are NOT eating, leaving us feeling even more hungry and unsatisfied?

We know how we got here and we have a pretty good idea what needs to change. So why aren’t we heeding simple yet sound dietary advice instead of gravitating to the next new fad book that that contains the word “diet” in the title? What barriers do we need to knock down to get us to start eating the kind of healthier diet that we once followed in this country? What say you?

Photo: Hemera

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