7 Big Ways the Average American Diet Has Changed Since 1970

Doughnuts from Dunkin" Donuts, French fries from McDonalds and fried chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken are displayed as staples of the American diet

The American diet has changed in a lot of ways. | Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images

America has changed, and not just in a demographic or cultural sense. Though many of us wouldn’t know what the world was like in 1970, reading through magazines, watching movies, or even talking to older relatives about the differences will make it obvious. Among those changes is the way we eat. The average American’s diet is drastically different than it was in 1970, just as a person in 1970 ate very differently from an individual in 1900.

Things change, tastes change, and meals change. We have cheaper, better-tasting, and more abundant food than ever before. But it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re eating better. A report from Pew Research has outlined that in fairly good detail. “Americans’ eating habits, in short, are all over the place, at least according to our analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data,” the report reads.

By looking at the average American’s daily caloric intake, based on the USDA’s Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System, and breaking down where those calories are coming from, Pew’s team was able to uncover several ways in which the diet of someone in the year 1970 would differ from a modern American. As you might suspect, we’re eating more — but what we’re eating has also shifted.

A contrast of the American diet over the decades

There’s a big contrast of the American diet over the decades. | Pew Research

The graph above is a starting point, but here are seven ways in which a modern American diet differs from the average eating habits of an American in 1970.

1. We eat more overall

A buffet table loaded with food

A buffet table loaded with food is a common sight here in America. | iStock.com

It may not come as much of a surprise, but Americans are eating more than they did 45 years ago. Food is quicker, cheaper, and easier to get, in many respects, and it isn’t hard to overeat. This is one of the primary reasons we’ve seen obesity become a serious problem, too.

“The average American consumed 2,481 calories a day in 2010, about 23% more than in 1970,” Pew’s report says.

2. We eat more flours and grains

Many slices of stale bread

Bread is a staple. | iStock.com/gashgeron

One area in which food consumption has increased is in grains and flours. That means products like bread and pastries. This is also likely tied to increasing obesity rates, as these foods are typically calorie- and carbohydrate-rich and contain hardly any fiber, minerals, or vitamins. Of the average American’s 2,481 daily calories, 23.4% come from this food group — or 581 calories.

3. Consumption of fats and oils is way up

Olives and olive oil

We’re eating more fats and oils. | iStock.com

Likewise, the average American is consuming more fats and oils than they were in 1970. Between fats and oils and the bread/grains increases, our intake is up 37.3% on a daily basis. Of the 2,481 calories per day, the average American consumes 23.2% from the fats and oils group, or 575 calories.

“Most of the fats we consume are in the form of vegetable oils: soybean, corn, canola and other oils used as ingredients or in which foods are cooked,” Pew’s report reads.

4. We’re eating more chicken and less beef

A Chick-fil-A logo is seen on a take out bag

We’ve upped our chicken consumption. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages

All of those Chick-fil-A commercials must be working. You know the ones — where the cows try to convince people to stop eating burgers and opt for chicken instead? Evidently, that mirrors our behavior. People are eating more chicken and less beef, broadly speaking.

“For the past decade, for instance, chicken has topped beef as the most-consumed meat. In 2014, Americans ate an average of 47.9 pounds of chicken a year (2.1 ounces a day), versus 39.4 pounds (1.7 ounces a day) of beef,” the Pew report says. “While average chicken consumption has more than doubled since 1970, beef has fallen by more than a third.”

5. We’re drinking way less milk

Glass of milk

Milk has gone by the wayside. | iStock.com

All of those “Got Milk?” ads from the ’90s don’t seem to have worked. Dairy intake, when it comes to milk, has dropped significantly over the past several decades. “Americans are drinking 42% less milk than they did in 1970: 12.6 gallons a year, equivalent to 4.8 ounces a day,” Pew’s report said.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up dairy. The report adds, “We’re eating a lot more cheese: 21.9 pounds a year, nearly three times the average annual consumption in 1970. And yogurt has soared in popularity, from negligible levels in 1970 to almost 1.2 gallons per person per year in 2014 — a 1,700% increase.”

6. Corn intake is also up

corn on the cob

Corn is in everything these days. | iStock.com

Corn is in just about everything these days. You can blame farm subsidies, or just be awed by how innovative we can be when trying to find a use for something we have a surplus of. Pew’s report said the average person consumes 14 pounds of corn per year, up from less than five pounds in 1970. Corn-sourced sweeteners have also exploded in popularity.

7. We’ve increased our sugar and sweetener consumption

various types of sugar

Of course, we eat a lot more sugar. | iStock.com/Magone

Speaking of sweeteners, we’re consuming a lot of them. In 2014, the average American consumed 77.3 pounds of “added caloric sweeteners” per year. That comes out to roughly 23 teaspoons per day. And that figure represents some improvement — “America’s sweet tooth peaked in 1999, when each person consumed an average of 90.2 pounds of added caloric sweeteners a year, or 26.7 teaspoons a day,” Pew’s report says.

You can check out the full Pew Research report here.

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