Fat. Sugar. Salt. Carbs. When seeking explanations for why Americans’ health has spun out of control over the past few decades, we tend to single out individual parts of the nutritional landscape for blame. But, as the New York Times‘ health blogger Jane E. Brody points out, the problem is “multifaceted” and will require systemic change to solve. While the average number of calories consumed per day has grown by more than 20% since 1970, that consumption increase is fueled by an across the board jump in the amount of not just sugar, but fats, oils, cereals, and flour that people are eating.
So where are all these calories coming from? If there’s any one culprit for the obesity epidemic in the U.S., perhaps we ought to point a finger at the overarching trend responsible for Americans eating more: the increasing popularity of eating food we didn’t prepare ourselves.
According to Brody:
Eating just one meal a week away from home can translate into two extra pounds a year for the average person, the [Department of Agriculture] calculated. Although the recent economic downturn forced more people to dine at home, the average adult now eats out nearly five times a week.
Brody points to a number of reasons why restaurant meals can sneak in so many calories, including the lack of nutritional facts on menus, the pre-dinner bread basket or chips and salsa, and the growth in portion size to please budget-seeking diners. This last reason has shifted the way we think about portion size even when we’re not at a restaurant. Makers of processed foods have adjusted accordingly with foods like bagels and muffins being larger than ever and yogurts being more sugary.
The advice for the American diner, which, is also the message of Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, is to cook your own meals using unprocessed ingredients if you want to buck the trend toward becoming overweight. The problem, of course, is that this is not a reality for many overworked, poor Americans who don’t have access to healthy food in their neighborhoods–the exact demographic most likely to battle obesity.