by Marion Nestle
Aug 5 2009

What We Eat in America: Latest Info

I’ve long argued that finding out what people eat is the most intellectually challenging aspect of nutrition research.  To put it bluntly, everybody lies. OK.  We don’t lie.  We just can’t remember or estimate portion sizes accurately.  For years, government agencies have gone to great trouble and done the best they can to get some reasonable idea of what Americans actually eat.  They report the results as “What We Eat in America.”  The data may not be perfect (they almost certainly underestimate actual intake), but they are the best we have and always of great interest.

I always like to know what is going on with calories.  The USDA’s most recent data are from 2005-2006.  These show that women on average consume 1785 calories a day, men 2638, and together 2157.  These figures are based on intake reported for 24 hours and almost certainly underestimate real calorie intake by one-third or more.  Compare these figures to calorie production, which is now 4000 per capita per day! (See Table 1).   The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between and all we can do is make good guesses.

USDA files its dietary intake reports under Products & Services.   Its latest looks at intake of four nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, and magnesium.  In comparison to dietary reference intakes (DRIs), Americans eat pretty well.  The low magnesium intake makes me wonder if the  DRI for that nutrient is too high, but I tend to be skeptical about such things.

Everything about these reports requires much careful interpretation, since every element of obtaining dietary intake information is fraught with error.   Better methods would help a lot.  If only we could figure out how to do this better.  A challenge, indeed.

  • Karin

    I’d be curious to know what the median caloric intake is considering the outliers can be extreme. Do you have data on that?

  • susanne

    the other day i was saying to my husband how well i did eating for that day. i told him i ate 3 meals and did not even have a snack. he said, “that half a hamburger and potatoes i left you was not a snack?” i totally forgot that i had eaten that.

    this is why journaling works so well for people who want to lose weight. people do not realize how much they eat until they are forced to account for everything they put in their mouths.

  • Janet Camp

    susanne – you are so right! Only through journaling did I finally realize how much I was overeating (for me anyway)! Only by measuring everything and continuing to write everything down (and no eating out) was I able to finally shed the 45 lbs I had accumulated since the birth of my last child (20 years ago). I had always thought that I was just somehow “cursed” with fatness as I didn’t think I was overeating because I mostly ate healthy food. I didn’t really add up all the snacks that weren’t so healthy or realize that I could easily take in double or triple portions. Nor did I realize just how many calories are in a bit of ice cream or how far you have to run (let alone walk) to burn it off!

    Once I did a lot of research about calories (much thanks to Ms. Nestle), and measured and counted everything and actually walked two to three miles almost every day, the weight came off and has stayed off with constant vigilance. Also, the diabetes is gone and the blood pressure is almost normal requiring only a very small dose of generic meds, not the expensive stuff I used to need.

    I’ve tried getting my diabetic (type 2) husband to start journaling, but he is too afraid (because he knows what it will show) to face up to his overindulgence. I have to go pick up his metformin today; maybe when he goes on insulin he will reconsider.

  • Thanks for this information and the links!

  • Sheila

    I am constantly struck by what I see in the carts of people checking out at the grocery store. I would love to do a photo montage of the cart contents of all the shoppers in a day at our local big box store. It would be an amazing collection of junk food, more junk food, and little healthy food.

  • Alessandra Barbadoro

    I wonder how much of those calories are prepared and then thrown in the garbage. Big portions mean big eaters, but they also mean big wasters.

  • Counting calories is good. Counting types of calories is better. You can’t compare a saturated fat to a monounsaturated fat on the basis of calories. One is a good fatty acid, the other one is a bad fatty acid. America needs to eat more vegetables, and less meat, cheese, and dairy. Less fast food and more real food.