Americans are swimming in calories, USDA data shows

Last Sunday’s New York Times looked at some recently released data from the USDA Economic Research Service showing that between 1970 and 2006, the amount of food available to the average American grew by 1.8 pounds of food per week. Among the increases were meat and egg consumption (+0.2 pounds per week), fruits (+0.5 pounds), fats (+0.5 pounds), and refined sweeteners (+0.3 pounds; recall the multi-decade trends in my post about HFCS). Ezra Klein converted the results into a chart that simplifies interpretation a bit. In the end, however, we probably need to look at calories instead of pounds.

The Loss-Adjusted Food Availability dataset contains average calories produced daily per capita for over 200 basic foods, as well as collections of larger food groups. The dataset was constructed by the Economic Research Service by summing the U.S. production, imports, and beginning stocks of a particular commodity and then removing exports, ending stocks, and non-food uses. Then the ERS analysts further adjust the quantity using estimates for spoilage and processing losses. The data are useful as an indicator of trends, but as the USDA’s “Limitations of the Data” section says, “…the loss-adjusted data series does not measure actual consumption or the quantities ingested because neither series is based on direct observations of individual intake. Therefore, data are not available by demographic, state, or regional breakdowns, and it is not known where readers can obtain such data.”

I have created two charts from the dataset. The first chart shows the average total calorie availability daily per capita between 1970 and 2004 (adjusted for spoilage and processing losses). The increase during that period was more than 500 calories per day, 24% higher than in 1970. if one failed to avoid this temptation and actually ingested 500 additional calories per day it would be tough to prevent it from going to the waistline — it takes 51 minutes of running (5 mph), 51 minutes of swimming, or 108 minutes of walking (3.5 mph) for a 154-pound man to burn 500 calories, according to (That’s the default weight/gender setting, oddly enough — one suspects very few adult American males weigh that little.) Not many people can find the time to exercise that much. And so, obesity rates are stratospheric.

.Chart of food availability, 1970-2004

The second chart shows how the calories are distributed across broad categories. Several things jump out at me. The most vigorous leap is the sharp increase in added fat calories since the late 1990s, an increase of almost 150 calories per day — and this follows a nearly 100-calorie increase since 1970. The bulk of the fat increase is from what the USDA calls “salad and cooking oils.” While it would be nice to think that most of those oils are extra virgin olive oil eaten in healthy salads or in Mediterranean dishes, I’m guessing that deep-fried and processed foods are the source of most of those calories. Other shifts in the chart are more positive: in the last few years, fat and sugar calorie production have dropped slightly.

Chart of food availability by sector, 1970-2004

The full dataset can be downloaded from the USDA’s Economic Research Service as an Excel spreadsheet if you’d like to investigate the availability of wheat flour, margarine, broccoli, beef or any of the other foods in the collection.

8 Responsesto “Americans are swimming in calories, USDA data shows”

  1. De in D.C. says:

    It would be interesting to amend your graphs with the years that the government came out with the recommended dietary guidelines.  I’d assume, looking at the graph, that the sharp increase in flour & cereal products were after the ‘fat phobia’ mentality struck the country and fats were replaced with carbs.  I wonder what spurred the sharp increase in fats?  I’m assuming the slight decrease in flour & cereals after 2000 would be due to the low-carb craze (ie Atkin’s).

  2. Emily says:

    Does this take into account food we export?

  3. Emily — when the USDA does their calculation of food availability, they account for exports.  In other words:

    Availability = (domestic production + imports + beginning stocks) – (exports + non-food uses + ending stocks)

  4. Berit says:

    And now check out the Center for Disease Control’s obesity map -  and see where all of these calories are going…. great post.

  5. Debs says:

    Stephan on Whole Health Source has an excellent and very different interpretation of the data from this NYT piece, particularly the numbers about fat and dairy fat, here:

    He’s right.  He and I looked over the data and they’re really poor data.  “Added fats” and “dairy fats” are pretty incomplete and somewhat arbitrary categories, for one thing.  They don’t take into account fat in milk or meat, and changed their method of reporting halfway through the years. Fat consumption hasn’t actually changed much, although we’re eating more vegetable oil and less natural saturated fat.

    It’s a dangerous misinterpretation, not only because it gives us inaccurate numbers and makes it harder to differentiate between processed vegetable oils and natural saturated fats, but also because the focus on fats can distract us from real, insidious culprits in our deteriorating health, like sugar and high fructose corn syrup.  So, I believe, can focusing on counting calories.


  6. Jacque says:

    The relationship between sugars and fats struck me… as one goes up, the other goes down.  Most people by now know to expect the fat-free and low fat stuff to be laden with sugar, but the consistently inverse relationship throughout the chart is interesting.

  7. monica says:

    Great minds think alike!  I created a similar graph to your second one on my blog:
    Scary stuff, isn’t it?  I

  8. Hazel says:

    Great information for those of us who care.  How do we reach those who don’t?