Entirely too fat and sassy

Americans today are living in a very fat land.

Government economists say that not only is there more food available for the American diet than they have ever recorded, but Americans are also eating more each year.

The amount of food available for Americans to eat has increased 16 percent over the last 35 years, from 1,675 pounds in 1970 to 1,950 pounds in 2003. That translates to about 2,757 calories per person each day _ about 500 daily calories more than was available for consumption in 1970, the Department of Agriculture says.

“The increase in caloric availability is stunning,” said Harvard economist David Cutler, who has used the USDA surveys to argue calories consumption is increasing while individual energy expenditure isn’t. “It’s clear that people are eating more.”

Hodan Farah, a USDA economist, said the statistics are compiled from food production figures, then adjusted by extracting food exports and other food losses from spoilage and plate waste. The agency is currently updating its decade-old food consumption data, which should be completed by 2007.

Roger Clemens, a professor at the University of Southern California and an obesity expert with the Institute of Food Technologists, said the USDA data should be used cautiously.

“It’s quite startling, but if I were eating 500 more calories a day, I wouldn’t fit in this chair,” Clemens said. “I would be big as a horse.”

Clemens said the problem unaddressed by the USDA surveys is that both food industry practices and individual food preparation habits have undergone a radical transformation in the last three decades.

Bacon grease, favored by cooks as a way of preparing food in the kitchen a half-century ago, has been largely replaced with vegetable oils for cooking, he noted. And while USDA surveys document a decline in dairy consumption over the last 35 years, Clemens said that doesn’t take into account how food processors are using dairy components and whey in making processed food. Manufacturers of potato chips today even use a dairy byproduct as an adhesive to stick various flavors on their products.

The USDA data shows there has been a 63 percent increase in consumption of oils and fats from 1970 to 2003 in the United States. But Clemens said much of this could be explained by changing fast-food industry practices. For example, fast food concerns throw away cooking oils more frequently in order to maintain a consistent taste of their French fries.

“The reality has changed since 1970,” Clemens said. He said the USDA needs to find a way to adjust its figures to match changes in food production systems.

The increases in food production have coincided with a period where Americans are getting heavier _ and taller, too.

The average adult male today weighs 191 pounds today, compared to 166 pounds in 1960, and is 1 1/2 inches taller, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average female weighs 164 pounds today, compared with 140 pounds in 1960, and is 1 inch taller.

Obesity rates have also increased as well and are two times higher than in the 1960s. Of particular concern, the CDC says, are increases in obesity rates. Some 15 percent of children ages 6-19 today are rated as medically obese.

Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutrition science program at the University of Washington, said the government’s survey shows only that the availability of food in the United States far exceeds the energy needs of Americans today.

Drewnowski argues that the economics of cheaper food made with added sugars and fats explain higher rates of obesity among low-income families and those with lower educational rates. He estimates that 40 percent of the energy in the U.S. diet today is provided by added sugars and fats, which are found in food that is cheaper to buy than more healthful lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables that would maintain a healthy diet.

“The system is geared to producing cheap calories _ added sugars and fats _ as opposed to inexpensive nutrient-rich foods,” he said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com)