by Marion Nestle
Aug 3 2008

Surprise! Americans have more food available

Sunday’s New York Times has a beautifully illustrated account of how the U.S. food supply has changed since 1970, based on USDA food supply data. These do not measure actual food intake. Instead they measure food produced in the U.S., less exports, plus imports. The USDA has collected (or computed) such data since 1909 and to the extent that they are collected the same way every year, give a good idea of food trends, even though they overestimate actual food intake. I like this USDA data set a lot. It shows that production of all foods is up, with the biggest increases in fats (59%), grains (42%), and sugars and corn sweeteners (17%). Vegetables are up (15%), but so are corn sweeteners (373%), cream cheese (350%), and sour cream (275%). The article doesn’t say so, but calories went up from about 3,200 to 4,000, an increase of 800 calories per person per day since the 1970s. Why are Americans gaining weight? Duh. There is more food around and we are eating it.

  • Ivan Road

    So, obviously we are all gluttons.

    How would you propose making all of us eat less, every day, for the rest of our lives?

    What strategy can you point to that might accomplish that?

    What strategies have proved effective in making overweight people NOT overweight for 10 or 20 years?

    How do you give an overweight person the iron discipline of a lean person, and make it last 20 years?

    Obviously, as you contend, it is not a biology issue. The biology is settled. It is all calories. End of story.

    So it must be a social and behavioral issue.

    How do you change the behavior of fat people so that they behave more like lean people? Any why, pray tell, are nutritionsists even involved in this issue if it is a behavioral problem?

  • darya

    ivan, chill out.

    some of us are lean and eat healthy because real food tastes better than junk food. and some of us work out regularly because it feels great to get those endorphins flowing.

    if people have trouble eating healthy, my recommendation is to take a cooking class where REAL FOOD is prepared and nobody worries about fat and carbs. it’s not that hard.

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  • Ivan Road

    Then please show me the data showing lean people eat ‘real’ food, while fat people eat ‘not real’ food.

    Show me the data that people who have sedentary jobs like executives and doctors and nutritionists and lab workers are fatter than people who build houses, lay bricks, and chop wood all day. Please post links.

    Please show me the data that demonstrate lean people work out more than fat people. If so, why do lean people work out more? Do they have more discipline? Do they have more time to work out? If not, how do they remain lean without working out? Are they better human beings?

    Please show me the studies that show lean people are lean BECAUSE they are more active than fat people.

    My contention is, the nutrition community, and Marion Nestle, have no real idea why some people are lean and some people are fat in the exact same environment. They say ‘ calories in calories out’. Which is about as instructive as saying fat people are fat because they weigh more.

    Are lean people immune to the advertising from food companies, while fat people are affected by it? Lean people are more sensible than fat people? Is that biology, or psychology? I’d love to hear any data or information about that.

    Why is it in the classic overfeeding experiments of Ethan Sims (Google it) that feeding 1000 extra per calories per day for many months to human subjects resulted in dramatically different gains in weight? How can that be? Some subjects gained 2.4 kg over the test period, while others gained 13.3 kg. On the exact same regimen — about 84,000 calories EXTRA calories per person.

    How did the lean people manage to burn off an extra 840 calories per day in a sedentary hospital environment? (Which is the equivalent of walking 3 hours per day, every day.)

    And even if they DID increase their activity over the course of the experiment, WHY, WHY do lean people spontaneously increase their energy expenditure in response to an excess calories? Are they metabolically different? Or are they just more sensible human beings? Are fat people inherently sluggards?

    Sorry, but I think Marion’s insistence that obesity is simply a matter of weak will is ridiculously simplistic. And that lean people are inherently more willful is ridiculous.

    Then, you’d have to assume that people had greater will-power in the 40’s and 50’s than we do now.

    Either way, obesity research has progressed virtually zero in the past 50 years.

    Are today’s physicians (or dietiticans) any more successful in treating obese patients than they were 50 years ago? I’d like to see some metrics on that.

    We’re better at fixing infections, repairing heart ailments, mending broken bones, treating cancer, but changing obesity. . . not so much. A patient walking into see a physician today has virtually no better chance of alleviating obesity than he did when walking into a doctor’s office 50 years ago.

    “You’re fat because you live in a toxic environment and there are food ads, and you are weak-willed. And all you need is to eat less and move more and it’s fixed.” How is current obestity ‘treatment’ more effective than it was 50 years ago?

    If it’s a behavioral problem, why are nutrition people even involved?

    That’s the simplistic nonsense that irritates me. Especially when it comes from people who DO NOT work with obese patients day in and day out.

    And no, I am not obese, and never was.

  • Ivan Road

    And not that anyone will notice, but I find it curious that the figures for saturated fat haven’t changed a lick since 1910.

    How come we’re dying of heart disease left and right, if consumption (or availability/production) of saturated hasn’t changed? How does that happen?

    Either we’re eating way more saturated fat than we used to, or we’re not, or it’s only an approximate guess anyway, or the figures are wrong. If saturated fat causes heart disease, how come it’s causing more heart disease than it used to? Or were people dying left and right of heart disease in 1910 and we didn’t know it?

    Or maybe it’s the huge inrease in polyunsaturated oils? But that can’t be, because they’re good.

    Sorry, I shouldn’t be commenting here like this.

    This is a book marketing blog, and such comments aren’t appropriate.


  • I don’t want to be antagonistic, but I will defend Marion by saying I don’t think she argues that this issue is a matter of weakness or will power. She promotes government agencies doing more to send different messages, making it easier for people to make healthier decisions. That’s the opposite of will power.

    50 years ago everyone was thin (but more people died of heart disease–because of medical advances, not weight) and only a few people were very fat. There has clearly been a behavioral change. The most obvious one is the processing and industrialization of food. There is no need to blame anyone for this, but you can constructively try to correct it by going back to what kept people healthy in the beginning: eat regular food that comes from the earth. People have stopped doing this not because they are weak, but because it is the new culture. Have you read Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food? You should check it out.

  • jake

    Ivan, what is so awful about the fact that people are eating more calories? And why the diatribe about saturated fats? Do you have stock in the butter industry?

    Did it ever occur to you that heart disease is easier to detect now and more people are being diagnosed with it because they are getting checkups?

    You claim saturated fat intake hasn’t changed. Can you provide proof? You are also forgetting about trans fats, which are just as harmful as saturated fats.

    Your anger is misdirected and, no, this is not a “book marketing blog.” It’s simply Marion’s blog where she discusses a variety of nutrition topics.

  • Ivan Road

    “You claim saturated fat intake hasn’t changed. Can you provide proof?”

    See the Saturated Fat column in the data that Marion linked to. (Which was the point of her original post anyway: to look at the data.)

    The figures (all estimates of course) for saturated fat have barely changed since 1910. No huge spikes, no upward trend. Just about the same consumption for almost 100 years.

    Suggesting, a) the absolute amount of saturated fat hasn’t changed much, and b) the PERCENTAGE of saturated fat in the diet has DROPPED significantly, since we’re eating so many more calories.

    So how can saturated fat have much to do with the dramatic increase in heart disease in the past 50 years? Or maybe there hasn’t been an increase in heart disease?

    So perhaps a lot of people died of heart disease in 1910, only we didn’t know it? Or perhaps even MORE died of heart attacks back then, since they ate more saturated fat, percentagewise, than we do now. Only we never knew it?

    Did more people smoke in 1910? Did they exercise less?

    Just that the data is puzzling, is all. The only way to reconcile it is to say the data is wrong, or to cook up some adhoc addendum or explanation to the theory that saturated fat is bad, or that maybe the original premise is flawed. As Marion often says “data is difficult to interpret”.

    And it wasn’t ME railing against people eating too many calories. It’s simply a common theme of Marion’s “We are eating too many calories, either because we make bad decisions, or because we don’t know any better, or the food companies con us, or . . .”

    Apologies if you perceived anger. I’ll restrain my posting in the future.