by Marion Nestle
Dec 12 2012

We eat what we buy. Both need improvement, says USDA.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has just issued a report, Assessing the Healthfulness of Consumers’ Grocery Purchases.

The bottom line?  Americans buy fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended but far more refined grains, sugars, and meat.

Here’s the summary diagram:

These results should not come as a surprise.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets are:

  1. Grain-based desserts
  2. Breads
  3. Chicken and chicken dishes
  4. Sodas and other sugary beverages
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
  9. Beef and beef dishes
  10. Dairy desserts
We eat what we buy (or are given).
That’s why congressional pressure to increase grains and meat in school lunches (see yesterday’s post) is questionable from a public health standpoint.
  • Mike Davis

    Your blog is an outstanding public service. Thank you! So which USDA will we see in the future: the one that provides useful numbers like the ones you show today, or the one that proposes setting back hard-fought efforts such as those of the Food Corps to improve nutrition in school lunch programs? Is this the USDA that according to Michael Pollan tells us (see: objected to Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House garden, the model for Victory Gardens, because it might not be good for the US food industry?

  • Food Lover

    Yes!! I was just thinking about this.

    Time to change the low-hanging fruit!!!!

    Historically, nutrition education has not been successful at instilling healthful eating behaviors in Americans.

    The question is… WHY?

    Basically, nutrition education is not sufficient enough for people to change their habits because these habits were formed due to 4 million years of conditioning.

    A common concept in economics is the rational consumer. The rational consumer chooses the low-hanging fruit every time. This has been true since our cavewoman days. In today’s food environment fast food and processed food are the low-hanging fruit. Our food environment is flooded with these products, so they are easy to obtain, and they are calorically dense for quick energy that we are conditioned to think will last. It is our primal instinct to reach for these foods first. And food scientists have exploited this for far too long.

    Using nutrition education to fight unhealthful eating behavior in today’s world is like trying to reverse 4 million years of conditioning.


    Instead, perhaps, we could simply change today’s low-hanging fruit from McDonald’s to ..well…fruit.

    (This is not to say that nutrition education is not important. It’s just not the whole solution. It’s the long game, and complementary to changing our food environment.)

  • Not surprising at all, but definitely interesting to see it portrayed graphically like this.

    I think there’s a revolution going on in the food world–one in which more and more people are spreading the word about the benefits of eating whole, natural foods sourced from local, sustainable farms. Time will tell …

  • Suzie LouWho

    It is disappointing that the data lag is over 6 years old that we continue to disseminate and use as the gospel. It is not to say that Americans most certainly should increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, but at the same time whole grains have proliferated in the marketplace over the past 10 years, it has been documented that calories from beverages are down and this week alone there is a glimmer of hope in the obesity efforts – with major cities reporting decreases in child obesity rates. Perhaps instead of such a heavy focus on everyone shopping at the farmer’s market and only buying fresh we should put more effort into promoting frozen and canned fruits and vegetables that are often bastardized. Heck canned beans in the grocery store are the same as those I canned from my garden this summer. I wish we could have a conversation based in 2012, not 2006. Sigh.

  • When you look at the health of people around us, and the leading causes of disease its no surprise that buying habits reflect eating habits. You can blame the economy but meats, fats and sugars are high-cost in terms of dollars and calories.

    How do we change this?

  • Anthro

    That list is even worse than I imagined.

    With another mild winter underway, my kale is still growing and the last of the tomatoes are ripening in the window–hence I don’t get into the statistics of those who buy their veggies!

  • Alexandra

    Do you think the “frozen foods” category includes frozen plain vegetables, or just frozen convenience foods?

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  • I think as Americans we’ll try just about anything. We even accept major food companies to give us bigger burgers, bigger pizza, endless pasta servings… etc.

    I think it will take a very long time to change people’s eating habits but it must be for a healthier lifestyle & fitter you not just because the government says so.