The number of calories consumed by the average American adult peaked more than a decade ago, according to large surveys. Children are eating less too. But we have a long way to go to improve our diet.
Obesity rates, which were steadily rising, seem to have flattened out, for adults and grade-schoolers. Among 2- to 5-year olds, obesity rates have actually fallen — by more than 5 percent between 2003 and 2012.
For a while, researchers credited the falling calorie consumption to the effects of the most recent recession and food prices. But now a consensus is building that we can thank a change in public attitudes. After a surge of research on the dangers of obesity, the message got through.
More than a third of adults and 17 percent of kids and teens, ages 2 to 19, in the United States are obese.
Sugar in processed foods has been a big part of the problem. A can of sweetened soda contains about 8 teaspoons of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that teenagers stick to a daily 5 to 8 teaspoons. So the soda alone would put a kid over the top for the day.
We’re now seeing a big drop in consumption of sugary drinks — which have been a target of public-health campaigns. In general, Americans, are getting fewer calories from beverages.
For decades, soft-drink companies saw sales go up. The average American doubled soda consumption during the 1970s until we were drinking more of the sugary stuff than tap water. By 1998, we each drank on average more than an oil barrel of soda in a year. Sales flattened and then began dropping in 2005.
Over the decade from 2000 to 2010, more families were buying artificially-sweetened drinks or drinks with a combination of sugar and artificial sweeteners.
But recent sales of diet soda have been poor, suggesting that Americans have also heard the news that artificial sweeteners may be bad for their health and even cause weight gain, industry watchers say.
Now the bad news. We still need to change our diets. Americans need to eat far less salt, and more fruits and vegetables. Adults should consume at least 1 1/2 and 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But in 2013, only 13 percent of Americans met the fruit target and less than 9 percent ate enough vegetables — and the pattern seems to be getting worse rather than better.
Parents can help by eating dinner as a family at the table and cooking meals with significant vegetables. Serve fruit for dessert. When you do eat out, explain that portion sizes in restaurants are much bigger than they used to be. Share entrees or order an appetizer for dinner, send away bread baskets and split or skip the dessert.
Eating more healthily is essential, but not the whole job. Americans at all ages need more sleep and exercise. Kids are less likely to bike or walk to school and spend an average of 7.5 hours a day wrapped up in TV, computers, video games, cell phones, and movies — often exposed to ads for fat- and sugar-laden foods.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advised parents to establish "screen-free" zones in children's bedrooms, turn off the TV during dinner, and limit children and teens to one or two hours a day of TV or video games.
Encourage kids to play outdoors or join sports teams. Children and teens need at least an hour of physical activity a day, most of it aerobic. They also need to do muscle- and bone-strengthening activities like skipping rope, gymnastics, and push-ups at least three days a week.
It’ll be easier to maintain and teach your family better habits if you’re part of a national shift. We tend to echo people around us in all of our activities related to health. So set your circle a good example and seek out support if you need to up your exercise or lose weight.
July 30, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA