Where Our Calories Come From

      45 Comments on Where Our Calories Come From

A reader sent me a paper about a study in which researchers got people to eat less by adding pureed vegetables to foods.  (Maybe they didn’t like the puree.) That wasn’t the interesting part.  This was — a breakdown of where the average American adult’s calories come from, according to the USDA’s data.

I can almost hear the members of the Dietary Guidelines Committee tsk-tsking about the 638.6 calories of added fats and oils and the 468.8 calories of added sugars — and of course I’d agree about the sugar, which they now recommend only “in moderation.”  (How about none?  Is that too extreme?)

But look at the calories from grains — 617 calories.  In America, grains mostly means wheat.  So the average adult is getting around 1,000 calories per day from sugar and wheat.

I recently finished reading an advance copy of Dr. William Davis’ soon-to-be-released (and terrific) book Wheat Belly. I already knew wheat is bad news, but until I read his book, I didn’t realize how dramatically the wheat we consume today differs from the wheat people consumed just 100 years ago.

I’ll write a full review of the book next week.  Until then, I’ll just say that 1,000 calories per day of sugar and wheat is a prescription for lousy health and runaway health-care costs — in other words, pretty much what we’re facing today.



45 thoughts on “Where Our Calories Come From

  1. Drew

    Tom, I hope you will blog the entire problem with wheat. I think I am missing something.

    Dr. Davis devoted a couple of hundred pages to what’s wrong with wheat, but I’ll certainly try hit the highlights.

  2. Lori

    Wow–that’s over 300 grams of carbohydrate by my estimate. (Sum of 469C added sugars, 150C for dairy, 91C for fruit, 617C for grains and 50C for veg is 1377C, divide by 4 g/C = 344g.) I’ve read that Americans eat around 300g of carb per day, but I’m not sure where they put it all.

    Even if someone thinks losing weight is all about the calories, why not cut out the grains and added sugar. Modern wheat is a nutrient sink: it damages the guts of celiacs and nonceliacs and the phytic acid binds to minerals. That “heart healthy” oatmeal is a nutrient sink as well–the Drs. Mellanby found that oatmeal gave kids cavities.

    My thoughts exactly. There’s no biological need for sugars or grains.

  3. Per Wikholm

    Interesting statistics…but where do I find legumes as soy and peanuts?

    And I think this statistics might actually underestimate the problems. In the added fats and oil category there is a lot of grain based (corn) and soy based calories affecting omega3/6 imbalance. And the meat, eggs and even farmed fish like salmon suffer från this imbalance as well, due to the fact that they are fed corn and soy products.

    By the way, I´m just reading Michael Pollans The Omnivores Dilemma. One of his conlusions is that people in the US actually consumes more corn derived food than Mexicans as measured by the carbon 13/14 ratio unique to corn. This ratio persists through the whole food chain from corn, to corn fed chickens, to humans eating corn fed chickens (and probably even to the poor worms and maggots eating the remains of corn fed humans).

    In the excellent documentary “King Corn,” one of the filmmakers had a sample of his hair tested. The conclusion: 50% of his diet began as corn.

  4. Melinda P

    I know you’re busy, but I need some kind of push in the right direction. With all this talk about wheat being bad for you: Does that mean one should completely eliminate wheat? Or just limit it severely? Are my low carb tortillas gonna kill me (cuz yeah, they have wheat)?

    I’m having a hard time figuring out what a healthy eating plan – you know, the kind that actually produces a healthy outcome – looks like. Maybe because I’m a person that needs very specific directions at least until I get the hang of things. I’ve been trying to dig around mostly the internet, for several months. Obviously I can’t go to a nutritionist (been there, done that), they will recommend lots of carbs and grains and as little sat fat as possible, which I now accept that as bad advice. But things aren’t very clear among “low-carb” advice givers. Are beans bad for you? How few carbs are you suppose to eat? Are fruits bad for you or just some fruit? Are you supposed to eat a lot of meat/animal protein or are you suppose to eat mostly veggies and keep protein portioned? Is dairy in or out? (I don’t expect you to answer individually, but these are just a few examples of my many, many questions I’m struggling with.)

    Isn’t there a book or website or something that says how many carbs to eat and what kinds of food in what amounts, without it being some highly publicized diet related thing who has a highly vested interest in selling pricey products (Atkins and South Beach, I’m looking at you!)? It would be really helpful if it was titled “Eat this way so you don’t die” but Google would have found it for me by now if there was such a thing.

    I believe the mutant wheat we consume today is bad for us, period. So I’d avoid it completely, just like added sugar. Fruits and beans are fine in moderation (the beans should be soaked, however), but it would be a good idea to check your glucose reaction to those foods.

  5. LeonRover

    So in which category is the humble Potato ?

    Is it a Vegetable or a Grain ?

    Then there is Corn – is it a Grain, an Added Sugar or an Added Oil ?

    Slainte Mhaith.

    Corn is a grain, potatoes are starchy vegetables (tubers). Corn oil, of course, is an added fat.

  6. Auntie M

    If I’m not mistaken, 300 grams of carbs is the recommended number for the SAD. Or maybe that’s changed with “My Plate”, not that anyone can tell. It’s so healthy, that Americans aren’t overweight or suffering health problems or anything! Yay hearthealthywholegrains!

    I look forward to the book review. Maybe I can buy a copy for my parents. And my sister. And anyone else who can’t figure out why I don’t follow the ADA crap diet. 🙂

    The USDA’s new guidelines state specifically that healthy diets are high-carb diets.

  7. Alexandra

    Robb Wolf does a great job of explaining the problems with wheat and other grains in his book, The Paleo Solution. His explanation of auto-immune is the clearest and easiest to understand that I’ve read. I am looking forward to reading Wheat Belly.

  8. Dan

    tom, my low carb/health library is growing, and I find it very valuable when bloggers like yourself give us a heads up on new books along with excellent reviews. thanks so much for doing this; Wheat belly sounds great and I’ll be adding it to my next amazon list.

    Full review to follow, but it’s a great read.

  9. OldSalt72

    Would be an interesting exercise to break down the USDA data on added fats and oils to see what percentage is seed based.

    Probably a high proportion comes from processed vegetable oils.

  10. anand srivastava

    I agree with you regarding the grains and sugar. But I would like to add the refined oils to it. But there is another factor to it.

    Out of the 2656.5 calories, around 1800 are empty calories. I do regard added fats to be empty calories, even if they are healthy fats. They are nearly as empty as white rice. Trying to get good nutrition from around 900 calories is what gets them in trouble.

    Atleast 1200calories are required to get decent nutrition, if the food is properly balanced. If you do eat 4000cal and avoid any junk like wheat, PUFA oils and sugar, then it is possible to be healthy on limited meat and veggies/fruits, and get most of the calories from rice and CO/Ghee.

    If they’re natural fats, I don’t consider them empty calories. Fats are essential for many biological processes.

  11. Kate

    Wow. That is just… stunning. Thanks for the chart. It really puts things into perspective about the SAD. Could I have your permission to post the chart on my blog, getfikatie.blogspot.com?

    Looking forward to your review of Wheat Belly; I always prefer to read a good review before I make a purchase.

    It’s a USDA chart, so you already have permission. You paid for it.

    Thank you,

  12. John

    Also, there’s probably a lot of trans fat laden “vegetable” oils in those added fats, like canola, soybean and corn oil. If those oils are in the 300-400 calorie range, that means we’re getting half our calories from highly processed, sub-optimal food sources.

    And unfortunately, those are the oils the USDA recommends.

  13. Chris

    Unfortunately the added fats are likely margarine (ie. Smart Balance) and Canola oil. All that sugar, all those grains, all that Frankenoil, add in the pill/ointment to cure everything (“inadequate lashes” anyone?) and is it any small wonder that our health care costs (as well as all the whitening products for our teeth)are rising.

    Good point about the added fats.

  14. bubba29

    I am curious what “added fats and oils” is?

    Fats and oils that weren’t part of the food originally. Drink milk or eat a steak, there’s fat there that wasn’t added. Put oil in a recipe, it’s added.

  15. Linda

    Love this quote from Dr. Davis’ site in response to a poster;

    “Rather than weeding out the weak by infection and predators, the weak will succumb to Kelloggs, Nabisco, and “healthy whole grains.” ”

    Well said, Dr. Davis.

  16. Larry

    I wonder how much of Clinton’s political downfall was related to his diet. He cut fat out of his diet, but then he started spending more time with a plump, juicy bird. Coincidence?

    Now that you put it that way, it kinda makes sense …

  17. Angelyne

    @Melinda (and all the people who are rethinking their relationship with wheat), if you are looking for more information and a practical guide on how to start eating healthier, I have a few links for you. These links are from the show notes from a excellent podcast called Latest in Paleo. (http://www.latestinpaleo.com/) I highly recommend the podcasts. Great stuff.

    These are getting started guides for living the paleo/primal lifestyle. If you are not sure what this means, try listening to one of the podcast I mentioned above. Start maybe with one of the early ones.

    So here are the links.


    and the biggie with enough information to keep you busy reading for a couple of weeks :

  18. Nancy

    I was very pleased to find that my local library already has Wheat Belly on order, so I added myself to the hold list (I’m second in line).

  19. Nancy

    Melinda P.
    Check out the articles under the Primal 101 tab at marksdailyapple.com
    That should give you lots of good information on a basic healthy eating plan.

  20. Mike

    This graph isn’t too surprising considering where our country’s health is headed. I really enjoy reading Dr. Davis’s blog and, as a result, have eliminated wheat completely from our house [it’s probably been close to a year now]. When seeing your graph though, it made me think of the Carb Curve graph from Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint…


    The ~300g of carbs per day is squarely in the ‘Danger Zone’ [queue Top Gun music..]

    The sad thing with the USDA guidelines [I am nerdy enough to have read sections of it and reviewed the studies it referenced] is that most of the studies referenced used to ‘disproved’ low carb had carb intake around the 40% of total calorie intake! I don’t know about everyone else in the LCHF/Primal/Paleo community, but that is CRAZY! Sadly, since it is a loosely defined term, the USDA has taken full advantage of its ‘loose-ness’ to benefit their recommendations.

    Love your blog!! Keep up the good work!!

    That was one of the many head-bang-on-desk factors about the USDA’s report ; they’d make some statement about diet and health, then reference studies that didn’t support the statement.

  21. Peggy Cihocki

    @Anand, I do hope you are right, but I’m skeptical. My brother’s girlfriend (they live in India and she is a strict vegetarian–only animal products come from milk) has been recently diagnosed with diabetes. They are trying everything to bring her sugars down without meds and are, for now, limiting her food to vegetables, yogurt, coconut and coconut oil, and ghee (I presume). I’m not sure there is enough there to provide adequate nourishment, but if she eats rice and/or dahl, her BG spikes. We’re (my brother and I) hoping she can be convinced to eat some fish, which he eats, but so far not much success. I guess we’ll see.

  22. Princess Dieter

    I’m not at all surprised. Before ditching grains, breakfast had two slices of Ezekiel bread (or occasionally cereal), lunch might have more bread in a sandwich or wrap or pasta in a soup or mac n cheese. Dinner might be all out pasta or pizza.

    Not surprised at all.

    I still get label-shock in the grocery store when I see how much added sugar is in so much. I shop mainly the perimeters now, not within the aisles, but dang, if the processed stuff is mostly crap –but people think it’s FOOD.

    And very eager to read Wheat Belly!

    I believe you’ll enjoy it.

  23. Walter B

    Re: Value of fats

    Whereas, animal fats contain essential vitamins. Where do you think the fat soluble vitamins abide?

  24. Barb

    @Melinda P – I started with Atkins – specifically A New Atkins for a New You – but I’m not necessarily married to it. After about 4 months of Atkins I read Jonny Bowden’s book Living Low Carb. He gives a lot of good information and discusses a number of low carb eating plans. From that book I found the Drs. Eades, and some of the authors who write about the paleo/primal way of eating.

    Atkins led me to Jimmy Moore and of course to Fathead and this website. I read them all. I have found that there are things that affect my weight but don’t bother some of my friends, and vice versa. It’s going to be a trial and error process to some extent, but if you can learn to eat this way, it’s really rewarding.

  25. labrat

    Regarding that vegetable puree – did you hear about the latest scam? Mac and cheese made with pasta with powdered cauliflower added – you know to make it “healthier”.

    Give me the cauliflower and cheese, skip the pasta.

  26. Nowhereman

    “Ornish apparently started advising Clinton in the 1990s. When Clinton developed heart disease anyway, Ornish told him he wasn’t being strict enough.”

    Nina, Tom. It doesn’t help when CNN quotes Ornish extensively in one of their health articles:


    The man who had the bypass was doing everything the USDA and Ornish told him to, and he still got heart disease.


    This was an interesting passage:

    Still, he was trying to do everything right. He was on a statin medicine, which he said had lowered his cholesterol from just under 300 to 125. Total cholesterol of 240 or above is considered a risk factor for heart disease.

    Also, Bare’s typical diet was better than most: oatmeal for breakfast, fruit for lunch, chicken or Mexican food for dinner.

  27. Jim Anderson

    When I began to eat low-carb, I cut out grain products, such as bread, pasta and cereal, simply because of their carb-content. I had the same motivation for cutting grains as I did for cutting potatoes. As time went on, I was focused on losing weight, and not paying much attention to other bodily changes. Several months in, I realized that my digestion had greatly improved. (I won’t got into graphic details. Let’s just say my entire digestive tract is now at peace.) I think I’m allergic to wheat and other grains. I have hay fever, and one of the things I react to is grass pollen. Grains are the seeds of grasses. It makes perfect sense that I’d be allergic to grains. The reaction is different when you eat an allergen rather than inhale it, but either way it causes stress and inflammation. Interestingly, now that I no longer consume these allergens on a daily basis, my hay fever symptoms have eased this season. The ragweed pollen is getting to me a bit, but ragweed is not a grass.

  28. Linda

    @Melinda P
    I also started with Atkins, bought a used copy of his original low carb diet, began with 20 carbs a day and used ketostix regularly as I determined the number of carbs that I could consume and lose weight. Everyone is different. You may be able to lose with far more, that is, if weight loss is your goal. From there I also sought out more and more web sites to increase my knowledge and acquire cooking and recipe tips. There is so much information out there.
    Here are some links that I find useful:


  29. Nowhereman


    “I know you’re busy, but I need some kind of push in the right direction. With all this talk about wheat being bad for you: Does that mean one should completely eliminate wheat? Or just limit it severely? Are my low carb tortillas gonna kill me (cuz yeah, they have wheat)?”

    Melinda, one of the nice things about this website and blog is that you have hundreds of people you can get advice from, not just Tom. I realize that all of this seems pretty intimidating at first (Just imagine my situation about 20 years ago when I started doing low-carb and Paleo long before there was an internet and world wide web as we know it today to get information from!). Luckily for you you have Tom’s site here, and you can link up to any number of good sources and Paleo/low-carb plans. Just check them out. Gary Taubes comes highly recommended since he has done an enormous amount of research on the subject.

    Wheat? I agree with Tom there, definitely stay away from it, along with rye, and barley and other wheat family derivatives. But it doesn’t just stop there. Almost any grain is bad for you, processed or not. And beware the so called “low carb” foods. They have lots of hidden nasties in them, like refined or added sugars. The only tortillas I have bothered with were a really nifty hemp-based brand that was an astoundingly low 7 grams of carbs per serving, and had no added sugars. Wild Oats had them before they got bought out and transmogrified into Whole Foods. Now I can’t find them anywhere, not even in the little independent stores. Sigh.

    As for the rest, some of this is an individual thing. You have to adjust a bit here and there to suit your needs. I know that sounds like a cop out, but trust me, none of us are the same. For some people, a little bit of grains and bread once in a while (that’s the big trick here), other people find they do best by staying off it completely, especially those people with food sensitivities, like those who suffer from celiac sprue.

    If you are doing this for weight loss reasons, definitely cut out all carbs, except for leafy greens. If you suspect you have insulin tolerance issues, you’ll really have to stay fairly strict, though that does not mean completely cutting out all fruits, just having moderates amounts, and even then try to find fruits that are low in sugar. For example, granny smith apples are a good mainstay that’s readily available, and you can spread the sugar and carbs out through the day, or even the week, by cutting the apple up into slices. Blueberries is another good mainstay, if consumed in light to moderate amounts. As Tom and others have noted, if you can get a glucometer, measure your blood sugar levels after meals to see how much it spikes, and you may even want to get your doctor to test your insulin levels, too. Depending on the results, it might turn out that you are hypoglycemic, and you will need to take extra special precautions in what you indulge in.

    For most people, a little bit of sugar is fine once in while, so long as it stays once in a while.

    So good luck on your new path in life, and don’t forget to ask questions here and on the other sites, should you need help. You’ll find a lot of helpful and supportive people who are very knowledgeable!

  30. Ricardo

    Hi Tom i was just wondering. Is it better to get Omega 3 Fats from fish like Salmon? Or better to supplement with it from fish oil?

    If you can get your omega 3s from natural food sources, that’s preferable in my book.

  31. Walter B

    Is butter under fats and oils or under dairy? Perhaps Dr. Professor Mr. T. Colin Campbell, would put it under meat as it has casein.

    I’d put it under fats, but I agree: Campbell could count it as meat.

  32. traderpaul

    Yet despite that USDA chart, 9 out of 10 nutritionists advise people to limit meat consumption!

    And eat more grains.

  33. Ricardo

    Hi Tom i was just wondering do you think of doctors like Joel Furhman and
    Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn they promote plant-based nutrition and say that there diet can reverse heart disease and treat chronic illnesses. They seem to really have something against meat as well like its some kind of poison always talking about meat but not willing to acknowledge the associations between grains and sugar with most diseases .

    What’s interesting is that their diets prohibit sugar, white flour, processed foods, etc. They toss meat in there because they’re morally against eating meat. If they really wanted to prove meat is the problem, they could repeat their experiments with all the same restrictions, but allow meat. They’ll never do that.

  34. ReduceCrapohydrates

    The strangest part about the obesity epidemic in america is a quart is 0.0537 less than a litre and a pound is 0.0465 less than a 500g.So theoretically americans should be lighter than the metric users if they use smaller measurements.Are people in europe consuming less food because their bodies feel the metric system gives them too much,making them feel guilty when they eat?

    I don’t know, but I’ll weigh myself in kilos if that will make me thinner.

  35. Ricardo

    Has anyone heard of visceral fat? They say its the most dangerous fat because it secretes chemicals that cause disease.

    Visceral fat is the kind of fat that builds up around your organs, as opposed to subcutaneous fat, which the kind you can pinch (think love handles). If you develop a fatty liver, that’s visceral fat. Visceral fat produces inflammatory hormones.


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