Here’s More Red Meat for Critics Of the Way Americans Chow Down

Like Some Sugar On Your Chicken?

We get a general picture of national eating habits by watching people’s bellies as they jiggle down the street. For more specificity, we can turn to the Agriculture Fact Book 2001-2002, issued last month by the Department of Agriculture. Its analysis of long-term trends in eating habits helps explain why Americans have been bulking up.

“Now more than ever, America is a nation of meat eaters,” the report intones. Total annual meat consumption (including red meat, poultry and fish) was 57 pounds higher per head in 2000 than in the 1950s (195 pounds vs. 138 pounds). While red meat is down a bit from its all-time highs, intake in 2000 (113.5 pounds per person) was still higher than during the 1950s (106.7 pounds). The big increase, though, has been in poultry. The figure for 2000 (66.5 pounds) was more than double that of the 1960s (28.7 pounds) and more than triple that of the 1950s (20.5 pounds). Is meat the key, then, to our pandemic obesity? Not as much as you might suppose. “Despite near record-high per capita consumption of total meat in 2000, the proportion of fat in the U.S. food supply from meat, poultry and fish declined from 33 percent in the 1950s to 24 percent in 2000.” This trend stems from such factors as the substitution of poultry for red meat and the marketing of lower-fat meat products.

So, where do Americans get their overdose of dietary fat? Cheese is one culprit. Although consumption of beverage milk is down 38 percent since the 1950s, consumption of cheese has nearly quadrupled (to 29.8 pounds per capita in 2000). “Lifestyles that emphasize convenience foods were probably major forces behind the higher consumption.” In this context, the report singles out such cheesy foods as pizza, nachos and tacos. Consumption of oils and shortening has also climbed. Per capita intake of salad and cooking oils has risen steadily over the years: It was 9.8 pounds in the 1950s, 13.9 pounds in the 1960s, 20.2 pounds in the 1970s, 25.0 pounds in the 1980s, 28.2 pounds in the 1990s and 35.2 pounds in 2000. (So much for the notion that salad will keep us slim.)

Dietary fat isn’t the only factor, of course, in the obesity epidemic. Consumption of flour/ cereal products reached 200 pounds per person in 2000, vs. 155 pounds in the 1950s. And Americans have been gorging on sweeteners, whether in solid foods or in soft drinks. “In a sense, sugar is the No. 1 food additive.” Consumption of all caloric sweeteners is up from 109.6 pounds per capita in the 1950s (and from 123.7 pounds as recently as the 1970s) to 152.4 pounds in 2000. The emergence of high-fructose corn syrup, which wasn’t a factor until the 1970s, accounts for the entirety of this increase.