Calories in the USA: An Interactive Overview

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Americans are obsessed with calories — counting them, burning them and searching for new ways to avoid them. And yet, over the last four decades, we've increased our caloric consumption by nearly thirty percent.

Why has this happened? What accounts for this increase? Are other countries experiencing the same thing?

Below are some interactive visual aids to help answer these questions. Check them out to get the inside scoop on Calories in the USA.

Calories By Food Group

In the US, the average daily dietary intake has increased by 600 calories — from 2,172 to 2,775 — over the last thirty-seven years. That may not surprise you, but the details just might.

In this chart, we see that Americans are actually eating roughly the same number of calories in five of seven food groups — fruit, vegetables, dairy, sugar and protein. However...

Grains and fats account for nearly all of the increase
in daily calorie consumption since 1970.

We'll focus on those two food groups in subsequent charts to see exactly what's going on.

Daily Calorie Consumption, by Food Group
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Use the scrollbar to see how consumption has changed over time
Worldwide Calorie Consumption

How does the United States rank worldwide, in terms of daily caloric intake?

In 1970, the US had the 26th highest daily caloric intake.

Switzerland ranked #1, with much of Eastern and Western Europe close behind.

Thirty-three years later, the US had risen to #1.

Our Canadian neighbors to the North haven't fared much better, rising from the 33rd most caloric country to #2.

Note that this graph does not account for spoilage and waste, which explains the discrepancy between this chart and some of the others.


Click on a country to zoom in, or switch to a different year below.

1970 2003

Fat Calories

The average daily dietary intake in the United States increased by 600 calories between 1970 and 2007.

Nearly half of the increase in daily caloric intake
is attributable to a single food source.

Over the last thirty-seven years, the American diet has seen a dramatic increase in the number of calories from cooking oils and related salad oils.

One explanation is the proliferation of fast-food restaurants — though Americans eat about the same number of calories in nearly every other food group, today's meals are much more likely to be fried in highly-caloric oil than the same meals in 1970.

Update: Astute reader Terry points out that the USDA changed the way they account for fat calories beginning in 2000. This accounts for about 100 calories of the increase, or approximately one-third.


Grain Calories

As the USDA developed and publicized a food pyramid that looked like this, Americans began increasing their consumption of grains in the form of breads, cereals and pastas.

Grains are one of only two food groups
Americans are eating more of than in 1970.


Dairy Calories

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the average American has not increased consumption of calories from dairy products in the last thirty-seven years.

While Americans are drinking fewer calories of milk, they are making up for it by consuming more calories from cheese products.



1970 2007

Sugar Calories

Though Americans are eating slightly more calories from sugar than in 1970, the rise is not that dramatic. Calories from added sugars peaked in 1999 at 510 per day, up from 402 in 1970. That number receded to 459 in 2007.

The big shift, however, comes in the form of sugar ingested.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup has risen
to 41% of Americans total sugar intake.

HFCS, virtually non-existent in 1970, is less-expensive than cane or beet sugar to produce, due to government tariffs on sugar and incentives on corn production.



1970 2007

Vegetable Calories

Americans get only 5 percent of their calories from vegetables, not surprising when you consider that most vegetables are so low in calories.

The breakdown into individual foods, however, is intriguing...

Of the 130 vegetable calories eaten daily,
nearly 60% come from potatoes or potato chips.


Protein Calories

Americans have followed the USDA's advice in eating fewer calories of red meat. Calories consumed from Beef have dropped over 20% since 1970.

However, overall calorie consumption from protein sources has not changed significantly.

Americans have made up for eating less beef by eating more chicken.



1970 2007

The Cost of Calories

One of the reasons Americans are eating more calories today than in 1970 is that price of food, when adjusted for inflation, has dropped.

What is disturbing, though, is that the price of added sugars has dropped significantly more than the price of healthful foods has. This can be attributed to the proliferation of low-cost High-Fructose Corn Syrup over the last thirty years.

The inflation-adjusted cost of added sugars
has dropped by half since 1970.

The purchase price of each food group has changed as follows:

  • Fruit sources: 30% increase
  • Vegetable sources: Unchanged
  • Grain sources: 29% decrease
  • Dairy sources: 38% decrease
  • Fat sources: 38% decrease
  • Protein sources: 50% decrease
  • Sugar sources: 50% decrease
Inflation-Adjusted Cost of One Ton of Various Food Groups
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Prices are in $USD. Use the scrollbar to see how consumption has changed over time

Final Thoughts, Acknowledgments and Sources

Calorie statistics for the US come from the USDA's Economic Research Service. The worldwide statistics, as well as cost estimates, come from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The technology behind the world map was provided by DIY Map.

Want to see more food databases like this one made into interactive graphics? Let me know which ones and I might just take a crack at it. Worldwide ice cream consumption, anybody? Or maybe something to do with coffee?

12 Responses

  1. Ben Greenfield Says:

    Intriguing. I would have thought that the ratios had changed more since the 1970’s. I’d be interested in a pie graph showing fat sources. For example, do we eat more or less plant based fat vs. animal based fat vs. chemically derived fat sources now vs. 1970’s…

  2. Shari King Says:

    Is an interactive link available to see the sources of US Daily Vegetable Calories in 1970?

  3. John Says:

    Would love to have that link/tool to easily share it with my clients and website members. Love the interactive time graphs.

  4. Lillian Says:

    Very surprising in many ways. Loved the time-line scroll bar.
    Would love to see more like this, particularly on individual food sources such as types of vegs, fruits, sugars, etc.

  5. Darlene Says:

    these statistics are very interesting. I eat healthy butis olive oil the oil of choice? i saute alot of vegetables.

  6. Spread the Love « Veggie Booty Says:

    […] Calories in the USA: An Interactive Overview: This article came to me in my daily dose of Hungry Girl email, and wow. It’s especially interesting to see how the average Americans’ daily caloric intake compares to that of the rest of the world. Ouch. […]

  7. Sarelle Says:

    I wanted to see just what oils were being consumed and where i.e., peanut oil, canola oil, grape seed oil, etc.? I am trying to find out which is the best type of oil for health and diet purposes.

  8. Sami Says:

    Any ideas what causes the jump on ‘added fats’ slider in the first graph between years 1999-2000 and 2006-2007?

    Otherwise the yearly changes don’t seem that dramatic, so what could cause these sudden big jumps?

  9. Beth Says:

    I’m surprised that there wasn’t a bigger increase in added sugar calories in 30+ years. It sure seems like the practice of adding sugar and HFCS to foods you wouldn’t normally think of (like salad dressings or tomato sauce) is a more recent practice.

  10. Terry Says:

    The big jump in added fats in 2000 is addressed here:

    “In 2000, the USDA changed the way it gathered vegetable oil data. This led to an abrupt, apparent increase in its consumption that is obvious on the graph.”

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