The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, often evaluates changes in American eating habits and publishes updated "report cards" from time to time. The most recent of these was compiled by dietitian Bonnie Liebman and published in the September issue of the Center's Nutrition Action Newsletter. Frankly, this "report card" can not be very proud of the United States.
The analysis of changes in food consumption between 1970 and 2010 shows that Americans have a long way to go to meet dietary guidelines that can counteract obesity and chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
Of course, it's not all bad news in this report. For example, while Americans still consume significantly more sweeteners (i.e., ingredients that are not naturally sweetened by the food itself) than they did in 1970, they have declined from an average of 89 pounds (about 40 kg) of "high sugar" per person in 1999.
Nevertheless, Ms. Liebman pointed out that the per capita consumption of sugar and high fructose corn syrup in 2010 (mainly sugar) still reached 78 pounds (about 35 kg), a value that is still too high.
In this "report card," Ms. Liebman gave the highest grade of B+ to the "control fats and oils" column, but even that was uneven. Indeed, Americans have significantly reduced their consumption of heart-damaging trans fats, and there has been a small reduction in the consumption of saturated solid fats such as margarine and shortening. However, the amount of total fat being added to the diet in the form of salad oil and cooking oil has seen a steady and dramatic climb.
For the country as a whole, the United States has not reached the "low-fat diet" level. Total fat consumption per capita has increased by about 20 pounds (about 9.1 kg) compared to 1970, which partly explains why the adult obesity rate has doubled since then (when the American obesity rate was only 15%).
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Agriculture Department) reported that Americans consume an average of 645 calories in added fats and oils in a day, and that's after taking out naturally occurring fats in foods such as meat and dairy products.
Americans seem to think that if food is a healthier alternative, they can eat as much as they want. But people forget, or never know, that a tablespoon of olive or canola oil contains roughly the same number of calories as a tablespoon of lard (about 115 calories), and even more than the number of calories in a tablespoon of butter or margarine.
"We've never really achieved a low-fat diet," Liebman said in an interview. "We've had an increase in fat intake from pizza, burgers, fries, baked goods, and restaurant food."
Likewise, the same is true when it comes to grain products. "Consumption of cereal products - bread, cereal, pasta, rice, tortillas, pizza, hot Italian sandwiches, muffins, scones - has increased dramatically in the last 30 years, and these foods are mostly made from white flour," she said. "We've been blaming candy and eating too much sugar for the obesity epidemic, but now, we need to focus more on grain products.
"Simply replacing refined grains like white flour with whole-grain products is not the end all be all," she added. "We need to reduce our consumption of all grain products, at least for a while."
Whether made from white flour or whole wheat, a New York-style bagel with no added ingredients can have about 500 calories, and a muffin now often contains as many as 800 calories.
For the average adult, who should limit his or her daily caloric intake to about 2,000 calories, grain products are a much more nutritious and less caloric alternative to fruits and vegetables, which make up a large portion of the diet. On Ms. Liebman's "report card," Americans scored a B- in such food consumption.
"We need to swap sandwiches for salads, starchy foods for vegetables, and cupcakes and fries for fresh fruit," she wrote. She wrote. "In the 1980s, the number of vegetables (excluding potatoes) we started eating began to increase, but now that upward trend has stalled."
Liebman was also surprised to find that total consumption of beef and pork remains higher than that of chicken and fish. While chicken is now slightly more popular with consumers than beef, Americans' fish consumption has remained relatively flat.
In the July/August edition of the Nutrition Action Newsletter, Barton Seaver, director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) Seaver) noted that Americans "consume an average of about 16 pounds (about 7.3 kg) of seafood per person per year, and 10 common species account for about 95 percent of that total."
Mr. Seaver, a former chef, encourages diners to avoid familiar food species in favor of more sustainable and healthful options, such as green cod, nudibranch, wahoo, haddock, and farm-raised Australian lungfish and shrimp. He advocates farm-raised, clean-water mussels, clams, and oysters as the "top" source of lean protein.
Contrary to popular belief, frozen fish is "no worse than fresh fish" because they are frozen on the fishing boat within hours of being caught, Mr. Seaver said.
Ms. Liebman applauded the steady and steep decline in whole milk consumption and the growing popularity of low-fat-based yogurt. But she noted that consumption of low-fat and skim milk remains low (its rightful place in the dietary ratio is taken by sugary soft drinks), while Americans' consumption of milk-fat-rich cheese has been higher, now at three times the 1970 level, and still climbing.
"Our problem is not just that we are overweight in dietary ratios of sweets, grains, meat, and cheese. On top of that, our total food intake has increased, with an average of about 500 more calories per person per day compared to 1970," Ms. Liebman said. "We've lost the concept of what a normal meal share is."
She blames restaurants for some of this distortion of meal shares. "If you always sweep up what a restaurant serves, you end up being overweight or obese like two-thirds of Americans," she said. "People should assume that restaurants serve twice the number of servings you should consume, and you can share it with others or pack half of it back to eat the next day."
While some restaurants have added light meals or light snacks to their menus, "this should become the standard food we all eat every day, not just an occasional try when dieting to lose weight," Ms. Liebman said. "In addition, vegetables and fruit should not be served as side dishes; their servings should make up at least half of the food on your plate."
At lunch, order a salad instead of a sandwich. Also, try fresh vegetables dipped in yogurt as a snack between meals or before dinner.
This summer, I discovered an excellent way to boost fruit intake in the home. It's a gadget called Yonanas: It uses slightly overripe bananas as a base and adds other frozen fruits (such as strawberries, pineapple, or mangoes) for color and flavor to create a dessert or snack that resembles frozen yogurt with a sweet flavor and smooth, creamy texture, but without any added sugar or cream.